Gender Equality Should Be at Heart of Disaster Response
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Gender Equality Should Be at Heart of Disaster Response


APLN member Natasha Stott Despoja writes that humanitarian relief efforts should strive for women-led disaster response in the Canberra Times, on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day. Read the original article here.

Today marks World Humanitarian Day, held every year on August 19 to honour aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service and to rally support for people affected by crises around the world.

This year it takes place during an ongoing global pandemic combined with wars and food insecurity which have seen humanitarian crises rise at an alarming rate.

More than 6.5 million people, mostly women and children, have fled Ukraine following the outbreak of conflict. The flow on impacts of the crisis has pushed up food prices around the world.

This impact is felt most acutely in the developing world and in countries already experiencing conflict. Forty million people are now living on the brink of famine in the Horn of AfricaAfghanistan, Syrian and Yemen. And, as we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.

This year’s theme is: it takes a village. It focuses on the collective efforts behind humanitarian work. It recognises when disaster strikes it is local communities that must respond first on the ground. Their efforts are often supported by the global community, but that support is patchy. And an aspect that too often goes neglected is the work performed by women and girls.

Although millions of women and girls spend their waking hours responding to emergencies on behalf of their families and communities most do so invisibly. And while supporting these women when disaster strikes is vital – perhaps even more important is investing in them before the emergency arrives.

That is why its vital that we deploy resources toward helping women in high-risk areas to be prepared and equipped for disaster. Doing so will have a powerful double effect. Not only will it help women play their crisis role as first responders more powerfully, but the preparation and execution is a potent tool to shift gender norms that exclude women from decision making and leadership in public life.

I have seen this work firsthand in Bangladesh, where NGO ActionAid pioneered women-led emergency response. Women went from praying and cleaning up when cyclones hit to leading early warning, evacuating the elderly and children, leading relief distributions, and lobbying the local government to establish a cyclone shelter for storing food, water, and important documents. Their communities have taken notice and recognised women’s leadership, and the skills and capabilities they can bring to humanitarian crisis.

The Arise Fund is a world first. It has been established to support more than 1 million women leading crisis response, while women do the bulk of the care work in times of crisis, they are often overlooked for leadership roles. The fund aims to empower 1 million women in five years with the resources and networks they need to lead their communities in times of crisis.

So far, more than 30,000 women have been trained to prepare for disasters and protect their rights in emergencies. Women have been resourced to lead emergency response efforts in 17 countries, including responses to the global COVID pandemic, the Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami, and the current Ukrainian conflict.

I am passionate about this work because it is a deeply practical way of responding to the horror we see unfold globally. In a world where crisis feels like the new normal, we can’t afford to become paralysed or indifferent when it all feels like too much. We should recognise the power to respond is already here if we more effectively manage the capacity of human beings. When half the population takes its rightful role at the table when leading humanitarian response efforts we can save and protect lives.

The federal government can support this effort by putting gender equality at the heart of efforts to support our neighbours to prepare for and respond to disasters and by boosting foreign aid to countries facing urgent humanitarian crises. And as Australians we can continue to give generously overseas and back the leadership of women that is paramount as crises continue to grow.

Right now, amid adversity, women rise up every day around the world to make things better. They are rarely paid to do, they do it for their families, for their communities, and they do without expectation or reward.

Their efforts are inspiring, but tragically inadequate. Imagine what could happen if we tapped into this enormous source of courage and conviction and supported it to transform crisis into an opportunity for driving gender equality globally.

Image: Humanitarian crises are happening at an alarming rate. We can lighten the load by getting gender equality at the heart of response. Picture: Shutterstock