Humanitarian work requires women

Corrie Butler / IFRC
The Somali Red Crescent’s midwife Samira Mohamed Ali works at a mobile clinic.
Image: Corrie Butler / IFRC

Humanitarian crises have increased. Women and girls often shoulder a heavy burden in crises. In order for their special needs to be taken into consideration, women’s voices must be better heard and their role as active actors in humanitarian work must be acknowledged.

Understanding of the impact of crises, such as conflicts and natural disasters, on both women and men has deepened. However, there is still a long way to go before women are acknowledged as active actors – not just victims – in the context of coping with disasters. Even so, women are often among the first to feel the consequences of crises. 
The number of conflicts has been increasing since the start of the decade. In war, men and women face different sets of risks. Men are recruited, imprisoned, killed and they may become victims of involuntary disappearances, whereas women encounter more sexual violence or stay behind to support families.
Women often keep society standing in the midst of or after war. Many women and children end up becoming refugees within their country or outside its borders. It is difficult for women and their children to flee longer distances to safety. During migration, women are at considerable risk of becoming victims of human trafficking or sex slavery. The numbers of child marriages also increase in times of war and disasters. 
Sexual violence, especially rape during wars and disasters, is already talked about, but incidents still often go unreported. Only a small number of rape cases are judged in court.
Rape also has a pronounced social dimension. A raped woman may end up being left by her husband or abandoned by her own family. Raped women and their children may be excluded from their community or living area without income, and may even become targets of ‘honor killings’ or be forced into marriage.  

Climate change increases natural disasters

According to one study, the life expectancy of women decreases more than that of men following a disaster. Disasters have the most pronounced negative impact on the survival chances of those who are already the most vulnerable.
Crises often affect the availability of childbirth, maternity and child health services, which can be life-threatening for women. In fact, three out of five maternal deaths occur in countries that are classified as fragile due to a natural disaster or conflict. 
Climate change increases extreme weather phenomena and natural disasters and threatens the habitability of certain areas. Climate change is expected to increase conflicts in areas where resources are becoming scarcer and that are affected by large migration movements.
The funding allocated to disaster response efforts has already proven inadequate as the numbers of people requiring aid have increased to record-breaking levels. The humanitarian needs of women will also increase in volume in the future. 

Aid work conducted by women reveals invisible problems

It is vitally important for aid work to always involve local women in both the planning of efforts targeting them within communities and as humanitarian workers. This is the only way to reveal problems that would otherwise remain invisible and to effectively allocate aid.
If the aim is to discuss menstrual health, maternity care, sexual and reproductive health or aid the victims of sexual violence, it is nearly impossible to reach those in need of aid without female workers. 
For example, in a project conducted in Syria, in certain communities women would not be allowed to receive treatment it there were no women in the treatment team. A Finnish aid worker working in Syria also explains that physiotherapists use their pay to support either their parents or their own families. “This income is especially important for those whose homes have been destroyed in conflicts, forcing them to become internal refugees.”
Strengthening and promoting the participation of women’s groups makes their voices heard in the promotion of women’s rights. One example of this is the Gwai Grandmothers Group, which takes care of approximately 400 orphan children in central Zimbabwe. The group also provides aid in disasters and is currently building a water pipe to an area suffering from drought with Finnish funding, with members themselves participating in the digging.
Finnish humanitarian NGOs Fida International, Finn Church Aid, Save the Children Finland, Plan International Finland, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, the Finnish Refugee Council, the Finnish Red Cross and World Vision Finland believe in promoting the participation of women as active actors in humanitarian crises and support their empowerment in crises. These efforts ensure that nobody is forgotten.
Tiina Saarikoski
Tiina Saarikoski is the Finnish Red Cross’s head of international disaster aid and writes on behalf of all the NGOs mentioned in the article.