On November 13th, governments, UN heads, international NGOs and civil society organizations gathered in London to develop a fundamental new approach to violence against women and girls (VAWG) in emergency situations, both man-made and natural disasters. These leading humanitarian agencies met to endorse a global commitment acknowledging that, “prevention and response to VAWG in emergencies is life-saving and should be prioritized from the outset of an emergency, alongside other life-saving interventions.” Nine donor governments (including the UK, US, Australia, Sweden and Japan), six UN agencies, the ICRC, the International Organization for Migration and 21 international NGOs endorsed a communiqué outlining future action and commitments.
When the rule of law crumbles, one of the first things that happen is women become the targets of violence. In times of disaster, such as the recent crisis in the Phillippines, hundreds of thousands of women and girls will become dramatically more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse, rape, forced marriage and trafficking. Experience has shown that every single humanitarian crisis puts women and girls at great risk, yet during the first stage of an emergency, targeted interventions for VAWG are not prioritized because the violence is not considered life-threatening, according to UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening. Child sponsorship data collected in Bangladesh in 2012 revealed that 62% of children under 18 who had married in the previous five years did so during the 2007 Cyclone Sidr. 18 months after the earthquake in Haiti, sexual abuse and exploitation were widespread because girls and women could not get the goods and services needed to survive. Furthermore, the rates of unwanted pregnancies, maternal mortality, disability, unsafe abortions and sexually transmitted infections including HIV, rise during times of displacement and economic hardship. Thus this Call to Action is built around recognizing that the prevention and response to VAWG is life-saving and must be prioritized, not as an afterthought but as standard practice.
These discussions have put forth the political will to take concrete steps to fundamentally influence systemic change while also addressing the root causes of VAWG. According to Julia Drost, policy and advocacy associate in women’s human rights at Amnesty International USA, “addressing gender-based violence can’t just be done in emergencies; it has to occur 24/7 and involve all government entities working overseas.” Which is why the commitments made by UN agencies, governments, donors and NGOs were framed as just the beginning of a process for improving the protection of women and girls in emergencies. These commitments aim to ensure that efforts to prevent and respond to VAWG become standard practice and result in real, positive change through the implementation of an accountability framework.
The humanitarian community has historically not prioritized the protection of women and girls in emergencies claiming lack of funding or lack of trained specialists. In order to reform the humanitarian community’s response to violence against women and girls in emergencies, this Call to Action will involve researching the historical challenges of implementing gender-based violence programs and address them with innovative techniques and sustained commitments.
Responding to VAWG in the first 72 hours of an emergency is a central focus of this initiative as well as sexual and reproductive health services, effective measures to eliminate impunity for the perpetrators of violence, empowering women and girls as a means and an end for tackling VAWG and proactively linking the work being done by the UK government and internationally to ensure commitments made complement existing initiatives. Other important commitments include identifying 20 priority countries that should be adequately stocked with post-rape treatment supplies by 2015; creating new posts in response teams for gender-violence experts; installing solar street lamps in camps and settlements; and increasing funding for gender-based violence initiatives.
UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening.
Another positive aspect of these discussions were that The Department for International Development (DFID) announced £21.6 million in new funding to protect women and girls in emergencies. In comparison to the United States’ Safe from the Start initiative to address gender-based violence in global humanitarian emergencies announced on September 23rd, UK provisions for humanitarian aid are able to provide a life-saving service that the U.S. program is not – access to safe and voluntary abortion for rape victims. Thus, the UK-funded medical care will be able to address the distinct needs of women and children in disasters, providing safe and non-discriminatory access to humanitarian assistance.
Tentative optimism is circulating around this event, with the hopes it can put forth measurable improvements by being prepared rather than reactionary when a disaster strikes. According to Sweden’s International Development Minister and event co-chair Hillevi Engström, “empowerment and protection should go hand in hand.” By focusing on gender inequity, the root causes of violence against women and garnering enough support from donors and humanitarian actors, this Call to Action has the potential make significant progress in filling the gap in disaster planning. Now, where do we go from here? Ms. Engström commented, “We have all the paperwork, polices and resolutions in place. But implementation is the weakest link in the chain. It’s time to stop talking and start acting.” As we are starting to see change and increasing attention to gender-based violence in crisis situations, let’s help give women and girls what they deserve – power, not pity.