Saving lives and saved lives: why women matter in humanitarian crises
by Jacqueline Paul May 2019

We know that humanitarian crises are times of turmoil when structures, systems and socio-cultural norms can be transformed for the benefit of all persons: for equity, equality of rights and justice. Feminists working in humanitarian settings continue to be told that gender can only be considered following the immediate response because the first focus must be on saving lives. The unstated assumption is that gender is irrelevant to the lives of people affected by crises – and that attending to gender will come at the cost of saving lives. Yet the impacts of ‘shocks’ are not gender neutral. An analysis of data from 188 countries, for the period 1989 to 2011, reveals that conflicts, natural disasters and crop failures reduce the life expectancy of women significantly more than men. Moreover, this mortality impact increases with the level of discrimination against women. The analysis indicated that improvements in women’s status in society have the potential to mitigate the excess mortality of women when such shocks strike.+ The analysis was conducted by Lorenzo Motta, with contributions from Chifundo Ntupanyama, drawing from several data sources. Anyone interested in the details of the analysis and further information on the data sources can contact Lorenzo Motta ( So, on average, pre-existing gender inequalities render women more vulnerable than men to the fatal impact of crop failures, sudden-onset natural disasters and conflict that have a systematic effect on the gender gap in life expectancy. And, as women’s socio-economic status increases, the adverse impact of ‘shocks’ on women relative to men – death – is reduced and eventually disappears.

This is one example of the relevance of gender to each stage of the humanitarian programme cycle – from emergency pre- paredness to analysis, planning, deployment and support of personnel, delivery of assistance and relief operations, leadership of humanitarian clusters, monitoring, evaluation and learning. In this cycle, women matter – as humanitarian response actors and as persons impacted by humanitarian crises.

Women as humanitarian actors

Sometimes, still, rapid assessment teams and initial humanitarian response teams are composed of only or mostly men. Sometimes, still, a response to a protracted crisis can be a masculine one. Yet we know that women humanitarian actors are needed. Women are needed so that all persons affected by a crisis can be seen, met, heard and engaged with, and have their needs fairly addressed. This is particularly important for recognising and responding to the diversity of women and girls, as distinct from categorising them as, for example, single heads of households.

Humanitarian worker (Syria): From the beginning you need to have access to women. You need to tell the men that we need to talk to women. If there’s only men from your side, and only men from their side, when the men ask to meet with women they will not be allowed.

Humanitarian worker (Afghanistan): In areas where we operate, you need women to talk to women. Whether this is good or bad, this is the local culture and we have to do this if we want women to have their voices heard, women need to talk to women. How can you design and implement a project for women, without asking women what they need?

Humanitarian worker (several countries): If, in ‘normal times’, a woman needs permission to leave her house, at a time of emergency is she going to leave her house to speak to humanitarian responders or wait until someone knocks on her door or gives her permission to leave? If there is a lack of understanding of context – of gender norms – is this woman going to be seen, let alone, heard?

Women’s presence and capabilities are needed to, at a minimum, minimise risks of causing harm to persons already affected by crises. This may be women being present at distribution points to ensure safe access to food and non-food items or women being available to provide services to women violence survivors. Or it could be that the presence of women allows other women to call attention to an intervention that can hurt them. For example, in a livelihood initiative the health of women was being harmed as they sat for long hours in damp, dark rooms weaving carpets, preceded and followed by unpaid domestic work. As a national humanitarian worker stressed: ‘You need women staff to talk to women’ and we ‘need to ask women what they need’.

In addition to identifying the barriers to equitable and safe participation in humanitarian action and opportunities for transformative changes, women who are part of a humanitarian response are role models for women (and men) constrained by restrictive gender roles. One such role model – and leader – is the former head of the World Food Programme (WFP) Damascus Field Office, who managed a team of ten women and men assisting 220,000 food-insecure households, while also being the sole parent of three children.

Humanitarian worker (Syria): Being a woman head of field office is such a powerful position. She is a decision- maker, saying to people yes or no. It has an impact on the society around her.

Alongside role-modelling and reaching women, we have learned and seen repeated the need for diversity among women workers. This supports localised responses that are amenable to the engagement of women and local women’s rights organisations, as well as professional development opportunities for national women employees. And for this to be possible – for diverse women to be part of localised humanitarian responses – employers need to evolve. The evolution is for organisations that have supportive systems, practices and cultures that make it possible for women to choose to contribute their knowledge and skills for equitable and empowering action. This means decent employment contracts, flexible working arrangements, adequate deployment lead times, respect, safety and security measures (like flak jackets that fit and transportation) and infrastructure (such as separate toilets and places for showering and sleeping safely). Too many women are, however, still finding themselves choosing between career and care, and being concerned about their physical integrity.

Humanitarian worker: I have chosen a different path to become a national officer. When I compare myself with other women colleagues in the office, those who have chosen to have a so-called normal life in this context – getting married, having children – they had to compromise with their career. In our office, I was the only woman national professional officer in the whole country office until a few months ago [when another woman was recruited to a professional post]. The rest of the women in our office are assistants, with very few associate level, junior level. And the reason for that is that they find it very difficult to have both a career and fulfil the role of a woman in this culture. I choose to work on my career instead of focusing on other areas. The expectations of a ‘good woman’ is that she will not travel alone or frequently. However, this is an essential part of a humanitarian worker’s job, but an inaccessible privilege for many married women. You have to think about whether you want to build your career or remain an assistant. Many women have to choose either to work on their careers or their personal lives.

If a woman chooses a career, there is a chance she will be confronted by an unstated assumption that she is more of a ‘hassle’ than a male peer because she may have caring responsibilities. And she will need to prove her worth.

Humanitarian worker (Syria): You feel [as a woman] you have to do more, to prove yourself. I missed many meetings at the school. I came back home tired. I spent more time – 2, 3 hours extra – in the office. When I come back home I am under pressure to respond to messages on my mobile.

With empowering employers, feminist humanitarian workers – women and men – are attuned to gender roles, relations and responsibilities. As such, gender and age analyses are considered routine and essential to inform humanitarian work. There is also the notion that such analyses can be done prior to a crisis occurring, such as for Venezuela or in antici- pation of a climate change-induced event, like crop failure. Tied to participatory responses and gender-responsive monitoring, such attention is linked to seeing and seeking to understand the individual, without problematising or essentialising women – seeing women as not solely victims, nurturers or peacemakers. Masculinities and masculine identities, and their role in humanitarian contexts, are also explored and addressed.

Working with women affected by humanitarian crises

Women humanitarian workers are vital for effective and empowering humanitarian action. Another essential element is working with women (and girls) who are part of the ‘affected population’. This means that we see and respond to diversity, make sure we’re inclusive and ensure that participation underpins our communication, consultations, cooperation and collaboration.

Humanitarian worker (Afghanistan): As an Afghan woman, it is important to me to know who designs the actions and how (and if) the actions speak to me. Acknowledging the fact that Afghan women, like women worldwide, have their own definitions and visions of empowerment, an action that is from (not for) Afghan women, representing (or focusing on) women’s diverse voices, experiences, visions, interests and needs in their own historical, cultural, and socio-religious contexts, is not only transformative, but also an empowering strategy that fits into a framework for understanding Afghan feminism as indigenous and decolonial.

What is being argued and advocated for is seeing and valuing women in an active way – taking actions that remove the obstacles to women sharing their knowledge, skills, ideas and leadership to protect lives, reinforce resilience and create the communities they want. This includes dealing with power in its many manifestations.

Humanitarian worker (Syria): If they [women] are willing to change, we need to help them change. If they are willing to be part of our response, our committee, we need to help them.

Humanitarian worker (Afghanistan): A major problem in Afghanistan is that women are invisible. They have their reproductive role, but they are not decision-makers. Whatever is being done for women, is not something they necessarily need. Our humanitarian responses need to be linked to resilience, development initiatives. If we really want our assistance to change lives, we need to help women gain some power so that they can talk about their needs and they can be part of the solution, rather than always being behind the scene and invisible.

From this perspective, the opinions and experiences of women and girls, equitably with those of men and boys, determine whether a humanitarian response meets the needs of the ‘affected population’ – if the persons who need food, water, shelter, clothing and health services get them, and they are (physically and emotionally) safe.

Humanitarian action can do more than meet basic needs. Humanitarian action can be feminist when – as one humanitarian worker describes – it is ‘a response that takes women’s historical, social, economic and political positionality, significance and resistance – as well as their different visions, interests and needs at its core. It [feminist humanitarian action] should also appeal to and inform their [women’s] social, cultural, religious and communal identities and values’. In this framework, core components of feminist humanitarian action include direct provision of information to women, in forms that they can safely receive and readily understand (so not mediated by, for example, a male relative or community elder); protection from exploitation and abuse; awareness-raising, learning, education and training, from ‘basic’ competencies of signing one’s name and numeracy to livelihoods and leadership abilities; access to resources, including money and property; the provision of services, including sexual and reproductive health services; investment in women’s social capital; and attending to reproductive roles, including recognition and redistribution of the unpaid care and domestic work largely done by women (and girls).

One example of feminist humanitarian action is the training offered to women in Syria. Following displacement to Damascus, and with no formal education but with resistance from her relatives, Jalilah completed a sewing machine maintenance course. From this, she learned for herself, and demonstrated to others, that she is a capable person. Jalilah also developed a strong appreciation for education and supports her children’s education – particularly her daughters – including paying school fees.

Jalilah (Damascus): I’m learning. I’m a woman. I can do what men do … I’m trying to improve myself … Women were ignored before. But now we’re leading by example. And we must be followed. A woman can do all the jobs a man can do.

A fellow trainee, Lina, had also been displaced to Damascus with her four children and husband. The displacement came with  the opportunity to leave the domestic space unaccompanied for the first time in her life. Despite opposition from relatives – her father disapproved of women working outside the home – Lina completed the sewing machine maintenance course and got a job with a tailor. Her financial independence gave her pride in being able to provide for her family, a desire for further learning and a ‘wish that all the women in the Arab world only depend on themselves – learn, get jobs and be independent’. The sense of personal empowerment can be transmitted. As one woman in Syria remarked: ‘I want [my daughters] to believe in themselves. Once you believe in yourself you will step wherever you want. If you present yourself as strong, you will be taken as being strong’.

The self-efficacy and empowering changes reported by women in Syria are seen elsewhere. For example, one young woman who completed a training programme that prepares female youth – returnees and those residing in neighbourhoods with high rates of violence – for employment in the hospitality industry in San Salvador reflected that ‘I feel better prepared. That I can make decisions about my life. That I decide what is best for my life’. In Afghanistan, women acquired skills in carpet weaving, sewing, knitting, basic mechanics, cell phone repairs and vegetable production that they have used to generate income for themselves and their households, including to send girls to school.

By working with women from the outset, it is possible to design and deliver humanitarian responses that directly address both their immediate needs and their longer-term interests. And, as noted by another humanitarian worker, in doing so ‘we don’t need to be confrontational. She’ll get afraid. Make the action practical – for her life, to benefit herself, her children, her household. She shouldn’t have to fight everyone in her community to be able to participate so that she can have more income, more food’. Breaking the isolation of women and supporting the creation or strengthening of social networks and coalitions are part of this process. And in doing so, the existing roles and workloads of women – at different stages in the ‘life cycle’ – need to be recognised and addressed.

Meeting needs and embracing uncertainty for equality

Working in the ‘humanitarian sector’, we are seeking to meet the specific immediate needs of women, men, girls and boys in an ‘affected population’, as well as supporting the attainment of their longer-term goals. We are also attempting to embrace the instability that comes with a crisis because of the potential for transformational change: for re/establishing institutions and norms grounded in gender justice. In seeking equity and equality of rights, gender is an integral part of the humanitarian programme cycle, rather than a box to be checked. Women are not external to the masculine norm, remaining an ‘other’ subject to special provisions. Rather, the emphasis is on empowerment over disempowerment, where each person is seen as an actor, not a passive recipient. In so doing, we remain resolute in the knowledge that effective humanitarian action – action that saves lives and changes lives for equity and equality – is feminist.

Jacqueline Paul is Senior Gender Adviser at the World Food Programme (WFP). The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of WFP. Publication of this document does not imply endorsement by WFP of the opinions expressed. All the persons quoted in this article are women.