It’s time to strengthen gender focus in humanitarian action

13 MAY 2021

The humanitarian system is at a critical juncture. As the new humanitarian chief assumes his position, Plan International is calling on him to raise the ambition of the humanitarian sector on gender equality and inclusion and to seize the opportunity to drive truly transformative change.

Rebeca, 18, has been affected by conflict and food shortages in South Sudan.
Rebeca, 18, has been affected by conflict and food shortages in South Sudan.

Yesterday the UN Secretary General announced that Martin Griffiths will become the new UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, a role which both runs the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and provides leadership to the broader humanitarian community as Emergency Relief Coordinator. Griffiths is stepping into the role at a pivotal moment, assuming leadership of a system straining under unprecedented humanitarian needs and facing mounting pressure to transform its power structures and ways of working. 

Pandemic has exacerbated inequalities 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance and the related funding requirements were at record highs. The pandemic has piled on further strain, driving economic hardship and spiralling food insecurity. Living up to the humanitarian imperative is becoming increasingly challenging. 

Advancing a human rights-based approach, focused on gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women affected by crises must be at the heart of this transformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare and widened inequalities. Girls and women have borne the brunt of escalating rates of gender-based violence and global school closures have disproportionately impacted girls’ education. The fallout from the pandemic risks rapidly unravelling development gains and threatening progress towards the 2030 Agenda, with fragile and conflict affected contexts being the hardest hit.

At the same time, the established power structures embedded within the humanitarian system are coming under increasing scrutiny, demands for meaningful progress on localisation and accountability have been further charged by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, prompting introspection and promises of reform across the sector. 

The confluence of these trends means that the international humanitarian system is at a critical juncture. Confronted with both the imperative for systemic changes and the momentum to carry them forward, Griffiths has a unique opportunity to drive truly transformative change. Advancing a human rights-based approach, focused on gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women affected by crises must be at the heart of this transformation, for it to be effective and for it to last.

Gender equality must be priority in humanitarian leadership

It is well established that disasters, conflict and displacement are not experienced equally. Gender, age, disability and a host of other factors shape individuals’ risks and needs and determine whether their voices are listened to. During times of crisis, girls face often insurmountable barriers to accessing and returning to school, are at elevated risk of sexual and gender-based violence, early marriage and pregnancy, all of which threaten not only their immediate safety, health and wellbeing, but also critically undermine their future prospects.

There is certainly recognition by humanitarian actors that gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women are important for effective, inclusive, and rights-based humanitarian responses. A raft of normative standards, guidance and frameworks developed over recent years and a growing number of policy commitments are evidence of progress. OCHA’s brand new Gender Policy is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Yet policies are often under-resourced and more is needed. The humanitarian system must go further and faster.

Firstly, gender equality must be a central priority for humanitarian leadership from the first phase of a crisis response. At the outset of an emergency, nearly all responses are gender blind. Investment in gender expertise, within humanitarian leadership, clusters and humanitarian response teams, can change this. 

Any commitment to gender equality must not overlook the role of age and other factors in shaping needs, risks and aspirations. Conflating ‘women and girls’, for instance, means that groups such as adolescent girls will continue to be neglected. Adolescent girls themselves tell us that the humanitarian system is failing them. This must change. 

Secondly, progress towards shifting resources and power towards local actors in crisis settings has to be accelerated. This must include a concerted focus on ensuring girl and young women led groups, networks and organisations have both resources and the opportunity to lead. Doing so not only results in humanitarian responses that better meet their needs, but also disrupts gender norms and hierarchies of power. 

Girls and young women are rights holders, not ‘beneficiaries’. More deliberate efforts must be made to ensure that they are not only merely consulted but are able to influence decision making about humanitarian responses and can meaningfully hold humanitarian actors to account.

Thirdly, humanitarian responses must start to lay the foundations for gender transformative changes. Work to address the root causes of gender inequality and promote girls’ rights should not be delayed or displaced by efforts to meet immediate needs.  Indeed, in times of crisis, when social structures are in flux, we also have our greatest opportunity to promote gender equality, disruption can lead to transformation. As the humanitarian system grapples with how to work more effectively in a changing landscape of crises and how best to collaborate with development and peacebuilding actors, advancing gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women must be a central goal.  

We are ready to work with Griffiths and deliver for girls in crisis

These systemic and deep changes will require visionary feminist leadership and meaningful commitment across the sector as a whole. As Martin Griffiths steps into his new role, Plan International stands ready to work closely with him, with OCHA, and with our partners to make the humanitarian sector more inclusive and gender transformative and to ensure it truly delivers for girls and young women in crises.