International Women’s Day – a CAFOD perspective on factoring women’s empowerment into humanitarian action

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate women’s rights and the power that women have when they come together and organise to claim those rights.

CAFOD is currently reviewing its overall global strategy in the wake of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si – his ‘encyclical’ paper, which offers his vision of the challenges facing people and planet, and responses to that. A big part of that vision, and an inspiration for our review at CAFOD, is a call to look deeper at the different kinds of power, violence and root causes of inequality and injustice. As part of that we are looking at how we can better address gender and the empowerment of women and girls in our work – including our efforts on humanitarian response.

We are at the early stages of reflecting on what we might do differently or do more of, but we have identified four potential priorities in that effort:

  1. Systematically factoring gender into emergency preparedness and response, alongside other forms of vulnerability and exclusion
  2. Partnering with women’s rights defenders and women-led civil society groups in crisis response
  3. Being deliberate about how longer-term work on gender can factor in emergency preparedness and response
  4. Making the most of allies in the Church and faith-based organisations on women’s empowerment and protection

Systematically factoring gender into emergency preparedness and response, alongside other forms of vulnerability and exclusion

The humanitarian sector has seen lots of important learning on gender-based violence, women’s participation, gender mainstreaming and related issues over recent years. Agencies specialised in gender have led the way on this, but the risk is that others get left behind. All that effort has also coincided with a proliferation of other standards, tools, guidelines and other initiatives addressing inclusion and diversity issues. These priorities could get lost for anyone who doesn’t have the time to read through thousands of pages of guidance, undertake months of analysis or years of training on multiple different agendas. Existing tools and frameworks are often developed and framed with international agencies – INGOs and UN agencies – in mind. For this reason, CAFOD has developed a framework which looks at gender in an inter-sectional manner alongside other issues relating to inclusion, protection mainstreaming, dignity and accountability to affected populations called SADI (‘Safe, Accessible, Dignified and Inclusive’ programming). Most importantly, we have developed this framework in collaboration with local partner NGOs, and are adapting it based on their feedback regarding what works to ensure it makes sense on the ground. 

Cat Cowley supports work on protection mainstreaming, safeguarding and inclusion for CAFOD and sister agencies in the Caritas confederation.

She shared:

"My hope for 2020 is that we can find ways to scale-up CAFOD's innovative approach to bringing together work on gender, safeguarding, protection mainstreaming, inclusion and accountability with local organisations on the ground through wider UN and donor efforts on these issues. The international humanitarian system is much too top-down and fragmented in its approach. That in turn risks turning these things into a tick-box exercise for field staff and local partners, and means local solutions can go ignored. We've advocated for the UN/NGO coordination group on these issues to work towards a consensus on a more aligned and systematic approach to these issues (the IASC Results Group on Accountability and Inclusion). Putting a partnership approach at the heart of this, and involving local NGOs - including women’s rights organisations – in creative approaches to that, will be key."

Partnering with women’s rights defenders and women-led civil society groups in crisis response

All humanitarian agencies have a responsibility to better address the ways in which gender shapes the experience of people affected by crisis. But if we rely only on traditional humanitarian agencies implementing basic ‘gender mainstreaming’ efforts, then progress is likely to be slow. Especially when it comes to promoting the voice of women in crisis-affected communities, or addressing sensitive protection issues, then the role of women human rights defenders and women-led civil society groups becomes really important. One challenge in this is finding ways to build constructive engagement between more traditional, male-dominated humanitarian agencies and women’s organisations that can bring a critical, transformative perspective on what needs to be done. Over the past year, CAFOD has supported processes of dialogue between national NGOs that do not specialise in gender and women-led NGOs through the Charter For Change coalition. We are also exploring how to foster more of this kind of engagement on the ground.

Gloriah Soma leads a national humanitarian organisation in South Sudan called Titi Foundation. CAFOD has worked with Gloriah’s organisation to raise the profile of women’s leadership in humanitarian action through the Charter For Change coalition.

She shared:

"To better protect women and girls in times of crisis, we need to see them not just as passive recipients of aid. We need to empower women and women’s organisations to have voice and influence over the crisis response. Over the past year, we've seen important steps taken by UN OCHA to map local women's groups in South Sudan and assess their barriers to accessing funding through the UN Country Based Pooled Fund. There are over 50 such groups and we hope that more of these will get support to scale up their work. We need to see donors like the UK and international agencies use their political and financial power to enable that. For example, Church linked 'local access units' have helped us and others negotiate access across conflict lines to open up space for our programmes. This meant we were able to work on mobilising communities to tackle the social norms underpinning violence against women and girls. We hope to see more UN agencies, INGOs and others consult with us and other women-led groups to identify how they can too be an ally, and how we can work together."

Being deliberate about how longer-term work on gender can factor in emergency preparedness and response

If humanitarian agencies wait until crises strike to look at options for women’s empowerment and protection, they are much more likely to get deprioritised or even ignored. Mirela Turcanu is working with CAFOD on a review of its efforts to address gender across development and emergency response programmes in Africa at the moment.

She shared:

“Emergencies are experienced differently by women, men, boy and girls. This experience will be influenced by the norms existent in their environment before the crisis strikes, as well as by the capacities and resources they can pull upon. When we talk about women being a priority group, it is not because they are inherently weak, but because they often live in a context which limits their access and control over resources, their access to services, even their ability to have autonomy over their bodies and claim respect for their human rights.

"All this, is not brought upon by emergencies, though vulnerabilities are accentuated and further exploited, but they exist before and continue after the advent of a calamity. Emergencies can even become key moments of change as survival becomes more important than strict adherence to gender roles and women often take on provider roles. That is why immediate emergency responses need to be linked up with ongoing programs which promote gender equality, equal representation and women empowerment to level the field, making sure that everyone's needs and voices are integrated into our response.”

Making the most of allies in the Church and faith-based organisations on women’s empowerment and protection

A little-known fact is that CAFOD was actually founded by a group of Catholic women who wanted to organise support mother and child health clinics on the Caribbean island of Dominica. As part of the Caritas confederation, CAFOD was also born from a wider movement of people and networks linked to the Church inspired by movements in Latin America, who understood how poverty is often rooted in deeper forms of violence and exclusion, including those shaped by discriminatory gender norms.

Today, around the world, there are women in Church-linked groups and religious orders sometimes working in the most hard-to-reach parts of countries in conflict, where traditional humanitarian agencies are not present or able to negotiate access. In parts of the Middle East, for example, there are sisters running shelters for survivors of gender-based violence in war-zones, where others are unable to support this kind of work. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, during the recent Ebola crisis, it was women – given their roles in the family and community – who were especially exposed to risks of catching the virus. Women in both Christian, Muslim and other faith-based community structures worked in the worst affected areas to raise awareness about Ebola, the crisis response and simple ways that women could keep themselves and their families safe.

Of course, there are also challenges, which can arise. Speaking with one of our faith-based organisation partners in Myanmar recently, the national director underscored the importance of increased support to ‘capacity-sharing’ approaches on gender and related issues:

“Previously international experts had flown in and brought their models for work on gender in our programmes to support internally-displaced people. These failed. It was only when we were supported to link up with other local organisations, who had found successful approaches to overcome the concerns of men in the IDP families about engaging IDP women in livelihoods and other activities, that we could make progress.”

This is an important year for women’s rights as it marks the anniversary of key moments in the development of frameworks on women’s empowerment, including the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. Later this year, the Foreign Office will host a major conference to follow-up on the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. In each of these moments, CAFOD will work with the Caritas confederation, faith-based organisation partners and women-led civil society groups to promote women’s voice and share good practices in leveraging the role of allies in the Church and FBOs in support of that.

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