Foreign Policy Blogs

Invisible or Forgotten? Women & Girls in Emergencies

Refugees in a Kenyan camp, courtesy Zoriah/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Aid, donations and relief supplies are making their way to the parts of the Philippines most affected by the recent disaster. A conference held earlier this week in London and attended by high-level representatives of governments, U.N. agencies and NGOs, wasn’t directly focused on responding to the “relief gridlock” and misery riddling the lives of many thousands of people after Typhoon Haiyan. Yet what was discussed there nevertheless needs to be put into practice.

The “Keep Her Safe” conference focused on the protection of women and girls in emergencies. While wars and violence fall under this category, so too do environmental disasters which displace people from their homes and safety nets. As the press release for the event highlights, crises “can leave girls and women more vulnerable to violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual assault, forced marriage and trafficking. Targeted interventions are often not prioritized in the first stage of an emergency because the violence is not considered life-threatening.”

IRC Tweet

“The humanitarian system is failing adolescent girls”
The quote above comes from Tanya Barron, Plan UK’s chief executive. It follows on from Plan UK’s 2013 report as part of the “Because I am a Girl” series entitled “Double Jeopardy” which looks at what happens to adolescent girls in a disaster, and why:

“When an earthquake destroys a city, a tsunami floods a coastline … we often see a woman with a baby in her arms, weeping as she views the destruction of her home and contemplates the death of her loved ones. In contrast, men are often shown actively rescuing people, handing out food, or clearing up. Adolescents, especially adolescent girls, tend to be simply invisible.”

This opening paragraph simply states what your TV and newspaper coverage does in times of crisis. Unfortunately, it also sums up what many humanitarian and disaster-relief organizations and groups fall prey to: the invisibility of girls. Yet invisibility can and does occur on both sides of the society-media relationship—in certain regions, girls are rendered invisible by societal ideas, ideologies and tradition which means that even before disaster strikes, they are kept at home, “protected”—but in a disaster, this “protective invisibility” may “dangerously reduce girls’ ability to reach safety” and, furthermore, limit “their access to life-saving knowledge.” This can include things like knowing how to swim or just being able to run.

In the aftermath of a disaster, food, water and shelter are the priorities; they are easier to distribute than the idea that women and girls should be safe. That’s not to say fulfilling Maslow’s basic needs isn’t incredibly important work: It is. But when women and girls are living in fear of violence and sexual abuse, “relief” probably isn’t the first word that springs to their minds. In her post on ReliefWeb, Marcy Hersh drives this point home: “Humanitarians are extremely efficient at delivering food, water, and shelter to civilians displaced by conflict and disasters. Why aren’t they equally proficient at protecting women and girls from violence? The answer is heartbreakingly simple: women and girls have not been the priority.”

Keep Her Safe
The London conference and its resulting Call to Action is a first step in remedying this oversight. At the event, co-chaired by UK International Development Secretary Justine Greening and Sweden’s International Development Minister Hillevi Engström, participants agreed that a fundamentally new approach to protecting girls and women in emergency situations is needed. In a communiqué, attendees stated that they recognized that “prevention of and response to VAWG [violence against women and girls] in emergencies is life-saving and should be prioritised
from the outset of an emergency, alongside other life-saving interventions.” Such action will hopefully reduce the incidence of rape and unwanted pregnancy, physical and psychological abuse, and powerlessness that women and girls experience in times of crisis.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation notes that violence against women during times of crisis can reinforce or quickly develop into a structural problem preventing equal participation of women in the political, social and economic reconstruction and transformation of society in post-conflict and post-crisis situations. The measures outlined in London will hopefully encourage and empower women and girls to take part in reconstruction and peace-building efforts as the crisis subsides, to ensure rights are upheld and the concerns and requirements of more than just older, powerful men are taken into consideration.

This is a first step. But to continue taking steps requires money, expertise and a commitment to implementation. A one-day conference is nice, but action is what matters. To be forgotten, to be overlooked, when you are at your most vulnerable is a terrifying situation to find yourself in. False hope and empty words are not useful. Let’s hope governments, NGOs and others really do keep their promise to #KeepHerSafe.

If you’re interested in this topic, you may also wish to read Care International’s November 2013 report on Donor Spending on Gender in Emergencies in 2013. The UK’s targeted funding was just 0.5% of the total.



Cate Mackenzie

Cate works as an editor in Zürich, Switzerland. She holds an MA in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich, and a BA (Hons) in International Studies with Political Science from the University of Birmingham (UK).

She has previously lived and worked in Fiji and the US.