top of page

Gender equality stocktake, challenges, and a snapshot from DIHAD

Earlier this week, I spoke at DIHAD, the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition, the self-described “world’s best humanitarian conference” (oh Doobs, where’s the humility?!).

I was asked to talk about how “gender equal” humanitarianism is, based on a stocktake of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit and progress made in the last two years. Here are the highlights…

It can be argued that gender equality was the big winner in the Summit, with nearly 20% of all commitments addressing gender issues. Core priorities for women and girls included:

  1. Promoting women’s leadership and “meaningful participation” (meaningful to whom, I asked?!)

  2. Ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights (now more important than ever with Trump’s reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule that cuts funding for critical health services)

  3. Amplifying gender-based violence prevention and response in crisis

  4. Funding gender-responsive humanitarian programming

  5. Applying humanitarian policies on gender equality

At the summit, it was said that empowerment of women and girls should be a “universal responsibility”. As such, the expectation was that Summit would be the catalyst to achieving real change for women and girls. But…has that REAL CHANGE happened?!

We kinda say the same stuff over and over again, to the same people, in the same ways (yes, I said this). I should have used Einstein’s definition of insanity, doing the same things over and over and expecting different results (no, I didn’t say that).

Anyway, it seems to me that we continue to be impeded by the same challenges, political will, funding, coordination, donor priorities, and justifying how our work is lifesaving and critical in the context of an emergency.

And meanwhile, we’re also struggling with getting our own house in order. This has prompted a rethink of our OWN understandings of power and vulnerability. As the #MeToo movement has revealed – EVERY industry is guilty.

How is the aid industry handling cases of sexual exploitation and abuse? … because we cannot advance our gender equality commitments without this.

These cases undermine our DUTY OF CARE and our mandate to DO NO HARM – and have the ability to negate so much of the critical lifesaving work that is done. This has a negative effect on fundraising, which then harms the populations we serve. And – what’s worse – we’ve built a culture of silence – and fear – around this.

Look at all the cases of SEA among peacekeeping contingents and how inadequately they are addressed – and how whistleblowers are treated (I saw this in Haiti, DRC, CAR, Nepal…). In Haiti, I was the GBV Coordinator for the emergency response post-earthquake – and we all know how challenging that situation was in terms of sexual exploitation!

Why does this keep happening?!

In humanitarian settings, sexual abuse and exploitation of women is magnified. This is because pre-existing vulnerabilities are amplified – and critical support and services are few. Some of those in power – including those charged with protecting populations – find ways to take advantage of the situation. At the same time, the lack of options and the need to survive forces women to resort to dangerous sexual transactions to meet basic needs.

“Humanitarian aid is free!” We say. “You should never have to do anything in exchange…” BUT we are not providing enough viable economic alternatives! AND – until we do – you and I and anyone else would do whatever it takes to survive. FACT.

(Also – let’s address the concept of consent here: If a woman agrees to sex in exchange for a meal, that’s EXPLOITATION – not consent.)

So – we keep talking about sexual exploitation and abuse – is that talk working!?

Funding to prevent sexual exploitation always fell short. And cases were often not addressed – unless there was reputational risk to the organization. Convoluted “internal processes” did not result in concrete action. Whistleblowers continue to be silenced, threatened, fired. If people aren’t speaking up, it is because we did not provide them with the means to do so! Meanwhile, we’re told: Let’s make zero tolerance a reality.


There’s also a pervasive humanitarian “culture” rampant with toxic masculinity. Boys will be boys and “locker room talk” attitudes are pervasive. Such attitudes easily lead to a sense of entitlement – and an abuse of power.

So – we need a comprehensive cultural shift.

However: This must not undermine the work done by many people in the field who behave with an extraordinary amount of integrity and dedication.

The thing is that not enough agencies have formal training and procedures for preventing, investigating, responding to sexual assault – and where they exist, they are often not followed. Agencies with solid reporting systems also have high reported rates – because people have a place to report! If there’s no system, no report. If people don’t trust the system, no report.

There’s a disturbing trend here: More and more senior officials of NGOs and UN agencies are implicated. But… they’re being put on fully-paid suspension, thanked for their years of service, and given a dignified exit.

And the UN’s response to these increasing cases of sexual harassment? (Our usual recipe is a study and a task force!) Indeed, there’s a new internal task force. And one week ago a 24hr helpline.

But, internal fissures remain. A UN internal survey from December 2017 revealed that 1/3 of staff do not feel comfortable challenging the status quo, and express a lack of ethical accountability at UN. Staff lack confidence that they can report misconduct – without retaliation.

This is an uncomfortable environment – not conducive to doing the work that needs to be done to meet our enormous humanitarian challenges. This is also fueled by a global culture of relative tolerance – or at least a sense of inevitability – when it comes to sexual abuse of women.

In humanitarian settings, we appoint a so-called “GBV Advisor” – a single individual whose task is to address all of this – and often also handle internal cases as well. Such work is chronically underfunded and understaffed. And this work is viewed as optional – or an add-on to the supposed “real stuff”.

I know this because I was this, scraping together funding, arguing with colleagues, and being told that there are “more important things” right now. What is more important than your own safety from violence?!

And within their own organizations, female humanitarian workers are at risk. A survey of over 1000 women in the humanitarian field revealed that 24% were sexually assaulted while on mission. Nearly every single woman I know has a “field story” – myself included. Most were unable to report – or were ignored. If they did – they often didn’t get the support and services they needed. And – most of the perpetrators remained in their positions.

So – if we can’t report or seek support, imagine a refugee woman – what options would she have when her very survival is on the line?!

Meanwhile, on paper, all the necessary ingredients are in place (on paper, we always look awesome!). We’ve got global consensus in favor of gender equality and women’s empowerment as human rights imperatives. We say these are responsibilities of ALL actors – NOT optional. We have a range of international humanitarian and human rights law, UN SCRs, and a collection of global agreements.


It’s worth asking how sustainable emergency aid actually is when we underfund what is urgent, and criticize the systems that we failed to adequately support in the first place.

And then I launched into a bazillion recommendations… like fully funding gender programming and gender teams, including core funding. And supporting women-focused women-led organizations. And – we need to start seeing gender equality and ending GBV not just as “women’s jobs” or as the “gender person’s job” – but as EVERYONE’S job.

And – we need to get our own house in order. More women in senior leadership and decision-making. Independent oversight and accountability, a confidential reporting platform. Most importantly – we need to protect survivors and whistleblowers – and ensure they have the full range of care and support.

I tried to end with some good news, basically emphasizing that the Summit commitments and recent dramas together can be catalyst for long-overdue systemic change.

As I’ve said a bazillion times before, research shows that the biggest predictor of peace in a country is not economic or political, but how the country treats its women. I’d also argue that the biggest predictor of an organization’s success is how it treats women: the women who serve the organization, and the women the organization is meant to serve.

#GenderEquality #SEA #SexualHarassment #WorldHumanitarianSummit #DIHAD #GBV

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page