Issue 17 - Article 8

Gendering Sphere

June 5, 2003
Carol Schlitt
9 min read

Women and children account for the majority of affected persons in emergencies. Unaccompanied women and adolescent girls face disproportionate and specific security risks, often in the form of sexual and gender-based violence. Women and girls are also vulnerable as a result of their restricted access to food and other resources, and because traditional gender relationships may define their roles as passive. Gaining recognition of women’s rights, particularly their sexual and reproductive rights, has been a long struggle. As humanitarian agencies apply Sphere to better address the political, protection, social and economic concerns of women refugees, the humanitarian charter and Sphere standards will be put to a true test.

Sphere and gender

Prior to the start of the Sphere process, it was generally believed in the humanitarian community that women were best served if services were gender-neutral. The Sphere Management Committee, however, questioned the idea of gender neutrality, and argued that women were underserved, or actually harmed, if their specific concerns and basic needs were not addressed. The challenge was how best to do it.

Initially, the Sphere humanitarian charter and minimum standards were to contain a separate chapter on gender issues with specific recommendations, such as gender-balanced evaluation and monitoring teams. However, some NGOs were reluctant to relinquish their autonomy over what they considered to be internal matters. Others were worried that donors would hold them to standards for gender equity that were difficult to meet, and penalise them for falling short.

The gender chapter was removed altogether, and the Management Committee conceded that it had failed to integrate gender adequately or consistently into Sphere. In July 1999, the Committee retained the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children to conduct a gender review of Sphere materials, and to suggest a series of amendments or additions.

The gender review

Based on consultations with donors and experts, a review of written submissions by humanitarian agencies and its own field experience, the Women’s Commission made three major recommendations:

  • that Sphere should acknowledge the need for gender equity in humanitarian services and programmes in emergency situations;
  • that there was a need for women’s full participation in decisions regarding access to humanitarian aid, and the appropriateness of humanitarian interventions; and
  • that attention needed to be paid to the physical safety of women and adolescent girls in emergencies.


Women, including widows, female-headed households and unaccompanied adolescent girls, should be given equal access to housing, health care and food aid. The current version of Sphere includes many of the recommendations of the gender review. For example, Chapter 2, ‘Minimum Standards in Water Supply and Sanitation’, emphasises that access to services for women, men and adolescents must be equal. With regard to food security, the chapter on nutrition states that initial assessments in the analysis of an emergency situation should take note of ‘particular groups which may be experiencing greater nutritional stress’, including pregnant and lactating women. Guidance Note 8 under Analysis Standard 1 of Chapter 3 (on nutrition) states that ‘in certain cultures, women eat after everyone else’. Because accurate statistics are essential for monitoring access, gender was infused into data collection, with requirements for disaggregation by sex and by age where feasible.


Changes to Sphere adopted from the gender review emphasise the importance of approaching the assessment, monitoring and evaluation of disaster response with a gender perspective, cognisant of the differing impact of disasters on each member of a population, as well as their differing coping mechanisms. Women should participate in a decision-making capacity, not merely as recipients of benefits and services.

Revisions of Sphere encourage the consultation of women from the disaster-affected population, and their involvement in decision-making. For example, in Chapter 4, on food aid, Sphere’s distribution standard now requires that ‘recipients are involved in deciding the most efficient and equitable method of distribution; women are consulted and have an equal input into decision-making’. Further, Guidance Note 2 in the Distribution Standard of the revised text now reflects a gender perspective that was previously absent, and states that ‘women have the right to be registered in their own names if requested … The involvement of women from various segments of the population will result in better representation of the community’.

There are still, however, some weaknesses. The Management Committee rejected the review’s recommendation for gender-balanced staff for humanitarian agencies, and instead opted for ambiguity. For example, in Guidance Note 3 under Analysis Standard 1 in the chapter on water, the text states: ‘Ideally, there should be a balance in the numbers of men and women taking part’. Also, although the revised text of Sphere included many changes regarding the participation of women, it did not incorporate the suggestion that assessment teams include a gender specialist or a women’s representative from the affected community.


Concerning the physical safety of women, important requirements in terms of gender were added to key indicators throughout Sphere. There is evidence that women and girls face specific risks in emergencies because of their gender. Sexual violence is a hazard, while sexual bartering may increase in order for women and children to meet their needs, and those of their families. Complex emergencies may contribute to HIV/AIDS infection in the population as a whole, and thus an increased risk for women and the infants they carry. Suddenly-displaced pregnant women often lack access to a clean and safe environment in which to give birth. It is estimated that at least 15 per cent of pregnant women experience complications requiring emergency obstetric care.

In June 1995, the Interagency Symposium on Reproductive Health in Refugee Situations identified a set of reproductive health activities – the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) – to implement in the initial phase of a refugee crisis to reduce morbidity and mortality, particularly among women. The MISP is the accepted minimum standard for reproductive health care in emergency situations, and is the most efficient way of preventing and managing the consequences of sexual violence, reducing HIV transmissions, preventing excess neonatal and maternal morbidity, and eventually providing comprehensive reproductive health services in the later phases of complex emergencies.

One of the most significant changes in the revised Sphere text is the inclusion of the MISP in Chapter 6 on health services. Guidance Note 5 under Healthcare Services Standard 2 requires that the MISP is used from the start of the intervention to respond to the reproductive health needs of the population. (Caritas Internationalis, a member of the Sphere Management Committee, added a note that its members cannot endorse the MISP, or the distribution of condoms.)

Sphere has done an excellent job in integrating the MISP’s components into all sectors of the revised edition. However, the specific description of the MISP in the Health Services Guidance Notes could be improved, with a comprehensive description of how to implement it, including a reference to the medical (including emergency contraception) and psychosocial management of sexual and gender-based violence. By prioritising ante-natal services, as recommended in the Health Services Guidance Notes, Sphere diverges from MISP, which recommends the establishment of a community-based emergency obstetric referral system.

As a result of the gender review, other changes have been made in the Sphere documentation. Guidance Note 5 under Analysis Standard 2 in the chapter on water now reads: ‘monitoring of water points and toilets is critical to the safety of women and children because sexual violence often occurs at these locations. It is essential to ensure that consultation before and during the programme includes adequate discussion with women, for whom the constraints on use are likely to be the greatest’.

In Chapter 5, on shelter and site planning, many significant changes were made. The revised text has responded to the issue of actual or potential threats to women’s security in closed living quarters, and the need to consult women about the location of such things as water-collection points, latrines and areas to collect fuel for cooking and heating. The recommendations incorporated into the revised text include: site planning in consultation with women and men from the affected population; ensuring the presence of female protection and health staff and interpreters; and reviewing issues of sexual violence in coordination meetings.

Gendering Sphere: experiences on the ground

Twenty humanitarian agencies are beginning to pilot-test the Sphere project in the field. For Siobhan Bracken, International Rescue Committee (IRC) Programme Design, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, the Sphere handbook is proving useful as an advocacy tool in her communications with donors and NGO partners. On a recent site visit to Akora Camp, 15 miles from Peshawar in Pakistan where Afghan refugees have been living for over 16 years, Bracken observed IRC monitors using the Sphere minimum standards to evaluate camp conditions.

The IRC monitoring team, noting that women in the camp appeared malnourished, used the minimum standards in nutrition and food aid to measure the women’s food intake, and learned that women refugees were receiving less than the minimum standards allowed in emergency situations. The IRC took this information to donors to advocate for increased resources.

Maggie Brown of the Sphere Implementation Team recently visited a refugee camp in Sri Lanka where implementation of the Sphere standards would have improved safety. She was stopped by a group of women refugees who pointed out that the latrines built for the military had walls, while theirs provided no privacy for women. Ms Brown notes that the Sphere guidelines explicitly state that ‘women should be consulted in the design, construction and location of toilets’. Sphere has the potential to give the affected population the ability to hold service providers accountable.


Full participation of women and heightened awareness of their specific concerns are crucial to the implementation and realisation of Sphere. The ‘gendering’ of Sphere is a significant step in the Sphere process as a whole. Sphere has succeeded in making people think about quality control, and about what it means to have a right to minimum standards. Sphere has encouraged better analysis and can help humanitarian agencies to focus on gender at the onset of an emergency. The significance of Sphere lies in the fact that agencies willingly entered into a dialogue about a great moral question: what do people in disaster situations have a right to expect? The Sphere process continues. For the gendering of Sphere, that is a good sign.

Carol Schlitt is Consultant to the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, New York.

The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, Tel: +1 (212) 551 088/3111 Email:, website:


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