Feminist practice: local women’s rights organisations set out new ways of working in humanitarian settings
by Jean Kemitare, Juliet Were, Jennate Eoomkham May 2019

Local women’s rights organisations (WROs) have been working to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls (VAWG) in humanitarian contexts for decades. While they have long been recognised as change-makers and leaders, they still face well-documented obstacles in delivering  aid to women and girls in development and emergency settings. These obstacles include a lack of sustainable funding, limited operational capacity, unequal partnerships with international agencies and barriers to accessing direct funds from donor governments or pooled funding streams.+IRIN, ‘Local Aid Agencies Still Waiting for Bigger Share of the Funding Cake’, 27 March 2017 (www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2017/03/27/local-aid-agencies-still-waiting-bigger-share-funding-cake) These challenges hold the global community back from prioritising partnerships with and leadership by WROs.+Victoria Metcalfe-Hough and Lydia Poole with Sarah Bailey and Julie Belanger, Grand Bargain Annual Independent Report 2018 (London: ODI, 2018)  (www.agendaforhumanity.org/sites/default/files/resources/2018/Jun/Grand%20Bargain%20annual%20independent%20report%202018_full.pdf)

To push forward, feminist activists and regional civil society networks have come together to strengthen locally led responses to VAWG, prevent sexual exploitation and abuse and promote the learning, leadership and resourcing of local WROs. These are hefty goals, particularly when local WROs and the voices of women leaders are currently so under-valued.+IRC, Are We There Yet? Progress and Challenges in Ensuring Life-saving Services and Reducing Risks to Violence for Women and Girls (London: IRC, 2015) (www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/document/664/rcarewethereyetwebfinalukspell.pdf)

Formal disaster management and emergency response efforts frequently overlook or ignore grassroots social networks, including those addressing violence against women and girls. According to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service, in 2016 just 2% of international humanitarian response went to local and national responders directly, and the majority of that went to local and national governments; only 0.3% was passed directly to local and national NGOs.

Without internationally funded and recognised programming, local civil society and women leaders are often left out of the humanitarian decision-making process, which prioritises international agencies and organisations based in the Global North. For too long, actors within the humanitarian system have sought to maintain it as it was created, rather than undertaking meaningful reforms so that the system works for all. We know from experience that this status quo has a direct, negative impact on the lives of women and girls.

WROs and local VAWG actors are on the ground and often ready to respond before international humanitarian actors mobilise resources and deploy; they can access remote communities cut off to international actors due to insecurity; and they have deep knowledge of their communities and networks due to a history of working alongside them, and often have already established trust. As a result, they can be well-placed to support survivors of VAWG and, through their links to community members and networks, to ensure access to information about available services. This also makes them a direct entry point and critical partner in the prevention of and response to sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian actors – abuse that is possible due to the dramatic power imbalances between international actors and the communities they serve.

The humanitarian system needs to fundamentally transform itself if we are to meaningfully influence the experience of women and girls affected by crisis. Partners in one initiative with this aim, Building Local, Thinking Global,+The coalition of networks and organisations leading this initiative includes Akina Mama wa Africa, the GBV Prevention Network, Gender Equality Network, Isis-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, El-Karama and the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa. The International Rescue Committee is a convener and partner. Building Local, Thinking Global is funded by the generous support of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration of the US State Department. came together in January 2018 to co-design our work to strengthen VAWG response in emergencies, and to define ways of working that stem from feminist thought and practice. At that first meeting, representatives of civil society networks focused on VAWG outlined a vision for humanitarian action that listens to and values the expertise of local actors, that is underpinned by a strong base of activism and that is accountable to women and girls. We also identified priorities for skill-building for member organisations, all of which are civil society actors working on VAWG. We envisioned a world in which the role of international non-governmental organisations is dramatically changed, and patriarchal power and inequality are ended. ‘Nothing for us, without us’, was our rallying cry.

Later, in January 2019, we came together again with a wider circle of activists to help build a three-year initiative called Listen Up.+Listen Up is also funded by the generous support of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration of the US State Department. Our goal this time focused on amplifying the voice of women in the prevention of and response to sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian settings. Again, we grounded our work in shared feminist principles, expanding on those set out the previous year. ‘We believe,’ we wrote, ‘that through feminist analysis, feminist leadership, and feminist activism, we can spark transformational change that is sustainable beyond the lifecycle of one emergency or one project.’ With this in mind, we set out new ‘rules of engagement’ for shifting power and resources to regional civil society networks working on VAWG and local WROs leading prevention and response efforts. They are:

  • First and always do no harm, put women and girls, and the needs and wishes of survivors, at the centre.
  • Hold ourselves accountable, to each other and to the women and girls we work with and for, to contribute collectively to the change we seek.
  • Listen to women and girls, amplifying their voices by stepping up for them when they need support, and stepping back to make space for them to speak for themselves.
  • Be transparent and open in our communications and decision-making, ensuring that decision-making does not fall into the patriarchy, hierarchy or bureaucracy that contributes to the failures of the system as it currently stands.
  • Acknowledge power differentials and work to shift power and resources to local women and girls’ organisations.
  • Take an intersectional approach, which centres women in all their diversity, creates more spaces that are accessible to women and girls and widens spheres of influence.

These commitments complemented those of shared owner- ship and sustainability, solidarity, influence and curiosity that already underpinned the work of Building Local, Thinking Global. Here, we would like to reflect on how some of these feminist principles translate into practice.

Solidarity. We believe we are stronger as a collective, and that we can and should consistently learn from each other, capturing best practice from the feminist movement and other social change movements to improve and evolve our work. We support each other, and we stand aligned with the women and girls we serve. This echoes African ‘Ubuntuism’, which emphasises the bond that connects us. We find strength in our coming together, and in our joint work for radical, visionary change. This has long been our experience as leaders and members of civil society networks working to end VAWG. We came together, recognising that in this way we multiply learning, opportunities and impact.

We’ve seen that exponential effect. Women’s rights organisations engaging with initiatives like Building Local, Thinking Global say that they are successfully leveraging connections and learning to access new partnerships and resources from other international agencies. Over several years, Building Local, Thinking Global has supported and resourced a cohort of locally and regionally based experts in VAWG so they can provide training and technical guidance to peers at the field level. Our solidarity  across organisations and contexts is allowing us to reduce reliance on international organisations for technical support, and instead to situate that leadership across women’s rights networks and organisations.

Similarly, through Listen Up, women rights activists are working in solidarity to end sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment in humanitarian settings. We are leveraging activists’ extensive expertise in transforming patriarchal systems in the Global South, and co-creating new approaches. We experience this as a new way of working on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment – one that is driven by local women’s movements.

Intersectionality. Interlocking systems of oppression mean that women and girls experience violence and discrimination differently based on their race, class, nationality, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. An intersectional approach requires that action to achieve social justice is informed by an understanding of the multiple experiences of inequality experienced by women and girls, rather than prioritising the experiences or needs of one group of women over another. We have seen this lens applied in the work of our partners as they adapt services to ensure accessibility for women and girls with disabilities, or tailor programming for adolescent girls. As feminist activists, we are also driven to ensure services for women and girls with diverse sexual orientation and gender identities, and to do so safely, despite legal frameworks and cultural contexts that fail to protect them. Through Building Local, Thinking Global in 2019, our cohort of experts and local leaders will come together to examine inclusivity in our work with women and girls in all of their diversity. This is also an act of solidarity.

Amneh Helweh of El-Karama, one of the organisations leading the Building
Local, Thinking Global initiative with the IRC.

Influence. As women’s rights activists, we are constantly seeking to change beliefs, attitudes and behaviours in order to create a more gender-equitable world. We face the same challenges within the humanitarian system. By including influence as one of our feminist principles, we demand that women and girls powerfully participate in decisions on humanitarian funding, strategies and policies, and that the voices of women  and girls are heard in all spaces – from settlements to the halls of government. We promote, for example, refugee women taking on leadership roles within refugee coordination mechanisms, and WROs claiming more than a tokenistic presence in inter-agency spaces, panels and events. In February 2019, the potential of feminist organising and influence was on display at the African Union, when members of the ‘Gender is My Agenda Campaign’ – including Building Local, Thinking Global partners Akina Mama wa Africa, Women’s  International  Cross-Cultural  Exchange and the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa – articulated the urgency of addressing the challenges of women and girl refugees on the African continent.

Listen Up has provided an  important  avenue  for  influence by WROs. Our co-created theory of change emphasises the following high-level outcome: that humanitarians use power positively, and respect and value women and girls. We include in the requirements for this outcome a recognition by humanitarian staff of their own power and privilege. To this end, we are adapting the proven Get Moving! curriculum developed by Raising Voices for use within humanitarian organisations.+See http://raisingvoices.org/innovation/creating-methodologies/get-moving/ These tools, grounded in feminist analysis, will support humanitarian actors in collectively reflecting on their own personal attitudes and behaviour, rigorously analysing the causes of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in local humanitarian response and agreeing together on priority actions to ensure that women and girls access aid equitably and safely. The combination of personal and professional reflection, analysis and commitment continues to inspire and sustain collective action.

Transparency. We are open in our communication and decision- making as we strive for equality in design, planning, access to information and power. These are key to project success, but also foster positive working relationships, trust and participatory and open discussion. Members of the Building Local, Thinking Global initiative believe that welcoming disagreement, alternative ideas and new voices was positive and drove us towards improved results. Transparency has also increased confidence in decisions, ultimately reducing friction because partners communicated under a set of clear expectations. This is rare in humanitarian partnerships, which too often involve Global North organisations determining the goals and workplans for joint efforts that are then handed to Global South actors to execute. Instead, the project’s international organisation partner, the IRC, has prioritised listening to feedback, adjusting as needed and putting in place mechanisms to check in regularly with local partners. This has been possible thanks to investment in relationship- building as a coalition of activists. We consider all members as equal owners, with voice and a role to play in determining our direction and priorities.

Effective response to VAWG in emergencies will require a more radical shift and application of feminist principles across humanitarian work. The obstacles mentioned at the top of this article – lack of sustainable, direct funding; limited operational capacity; unequal partnerships – will not be removed without a new understanding of the relationship between international agencies and local actors, particularly WROs.

Jean Kemitare is Programme Manager at the GBV Prevention Network/Raising Voices. Juliet Were is Programme Manager at Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange. Jennate Eoomkham is Emergency Preparedness Specialist at the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

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