By Jessica Uccellatori, Regional Gender and Protection Advisor, Mercy Corps & Kedar Mankad, Policy Officer Agriculture & Inclusive Growth, ONE
If poverty is sexist, then girls and women in humanitarian crises are particularly vulnerable. Emergencies aren’t gender neutral. Whether natural disasters or manmade – they have different impacts on men and women and often change household dynamics.
During a humanitarian response, the need to move swiftly to address basic survival needs is often characterized by a lower level of accountability to gender standards, although we know that emergencies create high-risk changes in gender dynamics.
Recently, there has been a concerted movement by international aid organizations towards more effective gender programing that understands the different needs and vulnerabilities of girls, boys, women and men in these crisis situations. More creative and targeted strategies are being established to ensure emergency programming is viewed through a gender lens and understand the specific context for girls and women. Understanding how, when and where food and other essential items should be distributed so that they can be accessed by girls and women, as well as undertaking community safety mapping by girls and women before locating water and sanitation facilities are critically important. The impact of bad positioning of toilets or showers in a refugee camp for example, can bring with it all sorts of problems – from risk of harassment, assault and rape, to disease if girls and women are too afraid to use the facilities.
The conflict in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis in the Middle East have placed many girls and women at risk of different forms of violence, exploitation and insecurity. More than 75% of the Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries are women and children. According to the UN, gender-based violence (GBV), including child marriage are the main issues currently experienced by girls and women in Syria and hosting countries and trafficking is on the increase.
Studies show that GBV issues are suppressed and in most cases, related services and resources are not available. Survivors have often reported feeling disoriented, stressed and isolated as a result of not having a safe space where women can meet mental health providers. In addition, cases go unreported because of fear and shame.
Adolescent girls are at particular risk of being neglected by international aid. In many contexts, working with just girls and isolating them as a group doesn’t work. In the past, some programs have focussed on empowerment of women and girls without bringing the men and boys along too – this has caused problems and exposed women to increased levels of violence.
As part of its response to the Syria crisis, the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps works with adolescent Syrian and Turkish girls in Gaziantep, Turkey between the ages of 12 and 20.. In order to identify the most vulnerable girls, Mercy Corps works through its networks and uses word of mouth from participants, recruitment through local civic partners, and information sessions conducted with youth and parents at schools and youth centers to help build trust of the families. Female Syrian and Turkish facilitators deliver classes in Arabic and Turkish and the adolescent girls are also supported by women from their community who volunteer to assist with activities and escort the girls on buses to and from the activity sites. The life skills sessions provide opportunities for enrichment, especially for Syrian girls who are often not in school and enable them to become more confident in engaging with other nationalities in their communities, in managing their emotions, and the girls involved observe a decrease in loneliness and isolation.
As ONE’s new report shows, empowering women works, no matter what sector. Education and health, both key issues in the Syria crisis are proven to have huge impacts when investments target girls and women. Increasing the amount spent on key health interventions for women and children by $5 per person per year can yield a nine times return on investment. Ensuring all students in low-income countries, including girls are educated could cut extreme poverty by as much as 12%.
We reached the fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict on March 15. It’s time for policy makers, donors and the international community to consider more robust long term programming for Syrian refugee and host communities. Humanitarian crisis response, along with the overall development agenda must place women at centre stage. Different sectors– whether they be water, sanitation, education, economic or psychosocial, can work together to take into account the specific needs of girls and women. Investing in girls is not only a moral obligation, it makes good sense.