OPINION: Why we need to engage local women in emergency response

by Sinéad Magill | Palladium
Monday, 19 August 2019 09:30 GMT

A health worker administers Ebola vaccine to a child at the Himbi Health Centre in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 17, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The role of female responders, whether individual or as part of official or unofficial organisations, is often overlooked, undervalued, or ignored

Sinéad Magill, managing partner, Palladium.

When disaster strikes, the first hours and days can mean the difference between life and death. As the international community works to mobilise, local responders are immediately busy saving lives – providing clean drinking water, building emergency shelters, and digging through rubble for survivors.

In fact, 90% of any humanitarian response is carried out by local responders, including neighbours, family, communities, local governments and health workers, local organisations and religious groups, many of whom are women.

For years, the humanitarian community has been talking about the need to “localise” emergency response – essentially giving more decision-making power over how aid is delivered to the recipients themselves. Engaging local women is key to making disaster preparedness, response, and recovery as efficient and effective as possible.

Not just victims and survivors

Women play a pivotal role in all life-saving sectors, from health care and food security to shelter and social protection. And yet, the role of female responders, whether individual or as part of official or unofficial organisations, is often overlooked, undervalued, or ignored. Experience tells us that:

  1. Women are an invaluable resource for building a better understanding of communities’ needs and informing decision-making. If we only work through male-dominated structures to understand the problems and the help required, then we’ll only ever be working with an incomplete picture.
  2. Female responders have better access to other women and children, and often to marginalised communities. In some cultures, women are not able to meet or speak candidly with male responders, but can do so with other women. Women are often the primary caregivers of family members, and so increased access to women by female responders means better access to children, and often to the elderly and the disabled.
  3. Women are crucial in getting communities back on their feet once the initial emergency response is over. Women are often the ones responsible for ensuring their family’s basic needs are met, whether by staying back to rebuild lives once men return to the workforce, or taking on paid work in addition to their unpaid labour.

Better isn’t necessarily cheaper

Recognising that women are agents of change and boosting their decision-making power in humanitarian work requires an upfront investment. Traditional humanitarian structures have failed to engage local women because it’s often male-led organisations that are able to grow and evolve to meet donors’ partnering and sub-contracting requirements. We need to build the capacity of women-led organisations so they can qualify for funding. We also need to spend more time identifying capable women-run organisations, beyond our usual go-to’s.

Some of the planning and response activities can be more expensive if we are to properly involve women. For example, for security reasons, more individuals may be needed to carry out certain tasks if women are responding. Or additional toilets or bathing facilities may need to be built for women, and support provided to help women step away from or manage their day to day caregiving responsibilities.

But the investment is small when considering the long-term benefits, both in terms of improving the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and in promoting gender equality.

Local women must have a bigger say in how humanitarian aid is delivered. As organisations working in the humanitarian and development space, we need to do more to raise their voices and support their leadership.