Gender discrimination in a humanitarian crisis: 3 Ways we can move forward

October 12, 2021

An estimated 235 million people will require humanitarian assistance in 2021. The effectiveness of that work will only go so far if we don’t consider how gender discrimination is currently felt in an emergency response. Here’s what we can do about that.

According to the UN, a record 235 million people will require humanitarian assistance and protection this year, nearly a 40% increase compared to 2020. As the demand for aid grows, the humanitarian sector is changing too: Previous humanitarian crises have typically centered on a geographical area, such as a natural disaster in the Caribbean or conflict in the Horn of Africa. However, as we have seen in the last two years of the the coronavirus pandemic, our societies are inextricably linked and solidarity carries a huge impact.

Humanitarian organizations around the world are looking for ways to adapt to the crises of today and prepare for the problems of tomorrow. With this in mind, we must apply a gender-transformative approach in responding to all humanitarian crises. As we know, humanitarian crises disproportionately affect women and girls, and can exacerbate pre-existing gender inequities.

Among other things, women and girls face the increased prevalence of (and exposure to) gender based violence and are often prevented from accessing life-saving services during an emergency. Yet in many crisis settings, women are also first responders as they are already at the location and know people, structures, networks, and needs. Despite this, they remain underrepresented in humanitarian coordination and programming.

Looking at three current global trends in humanitarian aid, here are three ways we can move closer towards gender equality in humanitarian response.

Learn about our gender-transformative work in 24 countries

1. Follow the local female leaders

Prioritizing local leadership has been a growing trend in the humanitarian sector. Local representatives bring vital insight to the decision-making table, and agencies and nonprofits have begun to support a shift in workflow to make space for these voices. The result is shifting towards the knowledge individuals on-the-ground can bring to an issue (particularly community leaders), versus relying on institutional expertise and best practices. The evidence has shown that working in tandem with the lifestyle and flow of a community leads to greater and more sustainable impact.

We know this well at Concern, where we have been engaging with communities for decades. Many of our projects are designed with communities and community leaders as our copilots, in what we call “participatory methodologies.” What this technical term means is something quite human: Communities are given the space and tools to identify their needs, their strengths, and their resources. They decide on which projects to prioritize, and then work on planning and implementing them, and monitoring their progress.

Local representation on its own, however, is not enough: We also have to make sure that there is a diversity of representation within a community, especially for women. Even if they aren’t formal leaders, they often play the hidden-in-plain-sight role of changemakers within their community and their input and buy-in is essential for success.

Somalia: Members of the Janagal Self-Help Group counting their profits. Since starting the Concern-sponsored program, they’ve grown not just in wealth but in confidence and well-being. (Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide)

2. Embrace global solidarity (with a gender-transformative lens)

While we need to prioritize local voices in our work, the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that global solutions are also a necessity. While the idea of a “surprise event” has been predicted for some time, the chaos of 2020 and 2021 is predicted to become more common as further known-unknowns loom in the distance. Global solidarity won’t be optional, but it will also become less challenging.

But it isn’t as simple as every individual being equally at risk. Women and girls globally, especially those living in extreme poverty, have seen their situations worsen. According to a report by McKinsey, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs. Although women make up 39% of the global workforce, they have accounted for 54% of overall job losses in the last 18 months.

Virginia Dandan, Independent Expert at the UN, defined global solidarity as “not seeking to homogenize, but rather [to] be the bridge across differences and opposites.” That includes the differences in genders and how each gender is treated in a given community.

Team members of Concern distribute soap at an informal tented settlement in northern Lebanon. (Photo: Dalia Khamissy)

3. Consider the gendered impact of humanitarian aid cuts

It seems shocking that, at a time where humanitarian need is at its highest, governments around the world are slashing aid budgets. Recent budget cuts in the United Kingdom reduced overall spending by approximately $5.4 billion (USD). Two of the casualties of this austerity were two important Concern programs in Bangladesh and Malawi, both of which were providing essential services to the most marginalized communities.

For women and girls living in poverty, these cuts are especially devastating and can profoundly alter the rest of their lives. Funding for girls’ education, for example, has been cut by 40% since 2019, resulting in an estimated 700,000 fewer girls receiving an education. UN data show that last year, around 815,500 women and girls received reproductive healthcare services. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund has also allocated over $60 million to programs aimed at addressing and ending GBV. If further aid cuts are made, regardless of the country holding the purse strings, the net impact of these cuts will disproportionately affect women and girls.

Zainab Thorlley (8yrs), a student in class 3 at Patiful Mayeppuh SDA Primary School, Tonkolil District, Sierra Leone. The school is one of the participating institutions in Concern’s Safe Learning Model program, which aims to fight school-related gender-based violence. (Photo: Michael Duff / Concern Worldwide)

As challenges for the humanitarian sector increase, so do the opportunities for innovation. Recognizing hardship and focusing on a solution-based response is our responsibility. Initiatives across the Global South aim to eliminate poverty through nurturing strategic partnerships and prioritizing gender equality as a driver of change. The ultimate aim should be to transform the root causes of gender inequality and place women’s empowerment at the heart of humanitarian and development programs.


Gender Discrimination in a Humanitarian Crisis