Section 7: Programming in Emergencies


Women’s rights in emergencies

At the heart of ActionAid’s work is a commitment to promoting women’s rights. This is central to all objectives in ActionAid’s strategy, People’s action to end poverty, and is non-negotiable in all programmes, including emergency preparedness and response, based on the understanding that the underlying causes of poverty and injustice are gendered. In emergencies, violence against women is exacerbated.

The different needs, risks and opportunities for women and men affected by emergencies must be analysed. Strategic Objective 4 highlights the critical importance of women’s leadership in building community resilience and enabling effective disaster response and preparedness. Women and their rights must be explicit in all aspects of emergencies programming to ensure access, equity and protection.

Guiding principles

  • Working on women’s rights is nonnegotiable for ActionAid, and we focus on women living in poverty and exclusion.

  • Women are differentially affected by disasters.

  • Disasters increase women’s existing vulnerability.

  • Disasters increase the burden of work done by women.

  • Women are often the first responders, but the last to participate in decision-making.

  • Women are not helpless victims and have an important leadership role in preparedness, response and recovery.

  • Emergencies present an opportunity to challenge underlying social inequalities.

In practice, this means ensuring women’s participation and leadership in each stage of the emergency process and ensuring that women’s specific needs are identified.

Needs assessment

  • Collect data disaggregated by sex and age and information on women’s specific material, psychosocial and information needs.

  • Collect data on needs of women with disabilities.

  • Community participation in needs assessment process (reviewing questions, organising meetings etc.) must be led by women to identify their own and community needs.

  • Women team members must lead the consultations with women who must be consulted separately from men.

  • The needs assessment design must be sensitive to women’s needs (e.g. timing and location, women’s psychosocial needs etc.).

Participation in decision-making

  • Women must be involved in all stages of preparedness, response and recovery, including procurement, project design and relief distribution.

  • The right to participation and decision-making are often denied to women, and emergencies present an opportunity to redress this.

  • To support women to participate in the decision-making process and access the assistance they are entitled to, ActionAid must help women to access information and understand their rights.

  • Emergencies are an opportunity to amplify the voices of people who are normally excluded.

  • The planning of activities and the behaviour of humanitarian workers impacts women’s ability to participate and lead.

  • In emergencies ActionAid should work with and strengthen existing women’s groups and institutions (e.g. Reflect circles) – capacity-building is a key part of preparedness.

Immediate response

  • Women have specific material, psychosocial and information needs that need to be considered in each sector (e.g. food, shelter, health, WASH, protection, psychosocial support, communications with disaster-affected communities) during the immediate response.

  • Women’s participation is essential in ensuring these needs are identified and that women are able access appropriate assistance.

  • The Sphere standards set out minimum standards for emergency response in each sector, including strategies for addressing women’s specific needs.

  • Alongside these technical standards, ActionAid must also consider the political aspects of women’s rights in emergencies.

Violence against women and girls

  • Violence against women and girls can take different forms – physical, sexual, emotional or psychological, economic and structural discrimination.

  • Violence against women and girls is not only committed by individuals, but also can be committed by the state through consistent, persistent structural discriminatory policies and processes that deny or abuse women’s rights.

  • Structural discrimination results in violations of women’s human rights – mechanisms for registration, information provision, distribution of relief, inaccessibility of authorities who are there to protect.

  • There are laws, policies, codes of conduct or standards at international, regional and national levels to safeguard women (including CEDAW, UNSCR 1820 and UNSCR 1325), but these are often inconsistently applied.

  • The dominant political, social and cultural beliefs and practices that both accept and perpetuate violence against women and girls, profoundly influence the formulation and implementation of the legal framework.

  • Violence against women and girls often increases in emergencies and should be considered in all programme plans.

Individuals, communities, mandated agencies and states all have a role to play in protecting women and girls from violence – different approaches to protection are described in the ActionAid protection manual.

Women’s leadership in the policy process

  • The structural causes of vulnerability that pre-exist in society persist in the emergency context, and can impact on disaster response. This is also true for the inequalities/injustices that women face.

  • Policy work aims to ensure the disaster response is just and equitable, and that change is sustainable through empowering poor and affected people – particularly women – and changing power relationships.

  • Policy influencing/policy advocacy means deliberately influencing governments and other power holders who decide on policy and practices that have a humanitarian impact – i.e. that deny rights of the rights of women.

  • Programme and policy work are interconnected. Policy work must be grounded in the programme and affected women’s experience and concerns in the field. Practice should also be informed by policy.

  • For ActionAid to effectively support affected women to claim, secure and enjoy their human rights in emergency contexts it is critical that the programme, policy and communications functions are linked.

  • Women, including women living in poverty and exclusion, have the ability to make their voices heard and effectively influence policy – ActionAid’s role is to support and build the capacity of these women so that they can take a leadership role in the policy process.

See also earlier in Section 7, which includes a case study on policy work around violence against women following the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Further Reading