Woman leader Luijah directs an ActionAid food distribution for people suffering from drought in Kenya

Protecting women’s rights in emergencies

What’s our position on women’s rights in emergencies?

ActionAid considers humanitarian crises as part of the cycle of rights denial and poverty, whereby conflict and disaster impact those who are most vulnerable and deepen existing inequalities in access to decision-making and resources.

Advancing women’s rights in emergencies, and specifically promoting women’s leadership in disaster preparedness, response and recovery, is part of critical strategy for shifting power to women. As an urgent matter both of principle and effectiveness, humanitarian efforts must recognise the rights, roles and agency of women and girls.

What are our findings on women’s rights in humanitarian crises?

  • 1

    With any kind of disaster, women and girls are especially vulnerable to the impacts. Women and girls are usually responsible for collecting water for the family, a role that has significant consequences in times of drought.

  • 2

    Women’s leadership contributes to better disaster preparedness and risk reduction; more efficient and effective humanitarian response; and inclusive and sustainable peace building and conflict resolution in communities.

  • 3

    There are significant barriers that need to be overcome for women to strengthen their leadership and participation in humanitarian response. For example, women’s unequal share of unpaid work also limits the time and resources women have available to engage in community-level decision-making and leadership.

Our recommendations on protecting women’s rights in emergencies

  1. We call for recognition and valuing of the vital role that woman play in humanitarian crises. Women and girls are not simply victims of crises and recipients of relief, but have ambitions, expertise, and skills. Recognition is the first step to open up space for women’s participation and their leadership in decision-making bodies in humanitarian response and recovery.
  2. We urge representation of women in humanitarian leadership at all levels. Donors, UN agencies, INGOs and governments should address and overcome social, economic, institutional and institutional barriers that impact of women’s ability to engage in humanitarian leadership through targeted programs, initiatives and further research.
  3. We demand renewed commitment to promote a humanitarian architecture that advances and protects women’s rights and allocate funds for its implementation through direct funding to local and national women’s organisations working in emergencies.

Progress on women’s rights in emergencies

Gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment during emergencies emerged as an overarching theme of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.

One of the seven High Level Leaders’ Roundtables during the Summit focused specifically on women's rights and gender equality in humanitarian action.

Of all 32 core commitments, the core commitment to ensure humanitarian programming is gender-responsive received the third highest number of endorsements.

Women leading humanitarian response

Sabita has been engaged with ActionAid’s women-led emergency response (WLER) approach and received training to lead the disaster response in the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Mahasen in 2013.

Sabita claims the approach dispels the sense of fear and dependency: “Men would rush to someone’s house and say harshly ‘you need to get to the shelter now’. This can cause people to get scared and lose courage."

"We went to people’s houses and explained to them that the storm is coming. We asked them: ‘Will you be able to go to the shelter alone? How can we help you.’ This way they felt encouraged and less scared.”

After the storm, the women led families in reconstructing their homes. More important even than effective response to disaster is building resilience – the planning and strength to avoid the worst impacts and be able to recover as rapidly as possible.

“Everybody respects me now, Sabita said. "I am so proud of how far I have come and everything I am able to do now."

With support from ActionAid, Sabita has become a trained leader in disaster response and is using her skills to help her community in Bangladesh

Turjoy Chowdhury/ActionAid

Top image: Woman leader Luijah directs an ActionAid food distribution for people suffering from drought in Kenya. Alice Oldenburg/ActionAid

Page updated 27 September 2022