Women responders: placing local action at the centre of humanitarian protection programming

November 26, 2018
Helen Lindley-Jones and Toral Pattni
Women at a CARE-run safe space at Potibonia camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

In recent years, locally-led responses to crises have been attracting increasing interest, linked to commitments outlined in the 2016 Grand Bargain. The Grand Bargain is an agreement between 59 donors and aid providers intended to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian aid. It includes specific commitments to increase support and funding to local and national responders (https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/grand-bargain-hosted-iasc). In the protection sector specifically, there has been increasing research See, for example, the series of reports produced by the Missed Opportunities Consortium, referenced in I. Wall and K. Hedlund, Localisation and Locally-led Crisis Response: A Literature Review, Local to Global Protection, 2016. on locally-led protection strategies, and the trialling of community-based protection approaches.

In this context, CARE wanted to better understand how women take action to mitigate and respond to the protection risks they and others face, whether as individual volunteers, leaders and activists or as women-led groups and organisations. By understanding what actions women responders are taking, and how international humanitarian actors are currently collaborating with and supporting them, we aimed to find ways to strengthen this engagement, ultimately contributing to better protection outcomes.

Through research in Malawi and Vanuatu, an extensive literature review and interviews with women-led organisations and gender and protection specialists worldwide, the research identified five key sets of findings on what protection means to women and girls, how women are responding to protection risks and how international actors are supporting them.

What does protection mean to women and girls?

When asking women about what protection means to them, it quickly becomes apparent how conceptions of protection, and women’s protection priorities, are both context-specific and deeply personal. They range from actions taken to protect their homes during a cyclone to taking action to protect others in need and maintaining their dignity by taking care of their appearance. Understandings of protection are also strongly gendered, and can’t be separated from the social norms that shape women’s lives prior to a crisis.

This underlines the importance of understanding and engaging with women’s experiences, building upon community-based protection approaches to ensure that protection strategies respond to women’s priorities. Engaging with women responders, as individuals, groups and organisations rooted in their communities is one key means to ensure that women’s voices are heard, and that analysis of protection risks is grounded in a context-specific understanding of gendered power relations.

How are women responders mitigating and responding to protection risks?

As has been increasingly documented, in rapid- and slow-onset and protracted crises, whether related to natural disasters or conflict, women are not passive recipients of assistance. The research found that, as individuals and in groups, women mitigate and respond to protection risks in diverse ways. Self-protection strategies are often a first action. Research in Lebanon revealed that Syria women refugees often hide the fact that their husband has been killed or kidnapped due to fears of violence and harassment, for example by pretending to receive phone calls from him. R. El-Masri, C. Harvey and R. Garwood, Shifting Sands: Changing Gender Roles amongst Refugees in Lebanon,  Abaad-Resource Center for Gender Equality and Oxfam GB, 2013. Frequently, however, self-protection actions have negative consequences, and may result in choosing exposure to one form of harm over another. One example is early marriage. Research on early marriage among displaced girls in Lebanon shows that women and girls identified it as a means to protect girls from gender-based violence and harassment. Syrian men were more likely to describe it as a financial coping strategy.

Women often organise collectively in informal groups: CARE’s mapping of women’s groups in Syria found cases of women in blocks of flats grouping together so that some could take care of the children in the daytime, enabling others to look for work or collect food distributions. In Malawi, ‘Mothers Groups’ played a key role in providing advice to girls to stay in school, and offering support to survivors of sexual violence.

Women-led organisations include those who have been established in response to crises in contexts such as Syria and Yemen, and those which normally carry out longer-term work, but which respond to emerging or recurring crises in the contexts where they operate. The actions of women-led organisations often meet women’s practical needs, as well as targeting the root causes of gender inequality. This may be in parallel, for example through providing material support and supporting women’s leadership training. Activities may also change over time according to needs and opportunities. In doing so, these responses may cut across traditional agency classifications, rather than falling neatly into a particular phase of a response or sector definitions.

How can women responders contribute to more contextualised and effective humanitarian response?

In developing a framework to understand the contribution of women responders to humanitarian response, we considered first if we should be asking this question, as it implies that we’re questioning their added value. In a review by Comic Relief, H. O’Connell, What Added-value Do Organisations That Are Led and Managed by Women and Girls Bring to Work Addressing the Rights, Needs and Priorities of Women and Girls?. Comic Relief, 2012. several respondents queried why Comic Relief was asking this question, with one interviewee stating that women’s organisations are challenged repeatedly, but not men’s.

In CARE’s research, we recognise that there is inherent value in collaborating with women responders, as well as in documenting and synthesising evidence on how collaborating with women responders can strengthen humanitarian response, particularly as their contribution is not always recognised. In examining the evidence, we found that, beyond protection programming, women responders also contribute to a more contextualised and effective humanitarian response more broadly. Women responders are able to make these contributions due to:

  • The access women responders may have, permitting them to act only as first responders but support more marginalised populations.
  • The understanding women responders bring to the needs and realities of different groups and how to engage with key stakeholders, and their ability to respond creatively to barriers.
  • Their ability to use social capital and networks to reach other women at different geographical levels.
  • Providing a space for women’s voices, and supporting women’s leadership potential.
  • Providing solidarity to other women and girls in day-to-day spaces and activism.
  • Helping to make interventions gender transformative, and potentially more sustainable.

The specific contributions of different women responders are unlikely to be the same, with grassroots leaders, groups and organisations supporting and responding in distinct ways to larger national women-led organisations and movements. In some cases, the contributions of women responders may be shared with other local groups and organisations, for example acting as first responders and gaining physical access to local organisations. Whatever the case, the understanding, experience and expertise that women responders can provide need to be recognised in the context of humanitarian response, as well as in longer-term social justice programming.

How are international humanitarian actors collaborating with and supporting women responders?

Seven types of collaboration were identified across both protection mainstreaming approaches and specialised protection interventions. These range from training grassroots women’s groups, for example to take over a women’s safe space or provide Psychological First Aid (PFA), to partnerships with women-led organisations in direct service provision, such as case management services. At the organisational level, many international NGOs do not have a single approach to partnership in humanitarian response, instead undertaking a combination of direct service delivery and implementation via partnerships. International humanitarian actors are increasingly collaborating with national organisations, including women-led organisations, in developing emergency preparedness strategies, and providing technical support to organisations that may not previously have been involved in humanitarian response.

Partnerships have often been facilitated by the advocacy of individuals within INGOs who value the specific contributions of women responders. Conversely, partnerships have been constrained where senior staff do not value collaboration with women-led organisations, and where partnership selection criteria favour organisations able to comply with due diligence and grant requirements over technical experience and expertise. This underlines the importance of formalising engagement with women responders in partnership and regional and country strategies, and removing barriers to partnership with women-led organisations.

Challenges in collaboration

Women responders face a number of challenges in collaborating with humanitarian actors, not least barriers that limit women’s participation in decision-making more widely, such as social norms dictating that women shouldn’t be leaders. Marginalised individuals, such as disabled women and LGBTIQ people, are often not included in either mainstream humanitarian coordination spaces or women’s movements.

Many of the challenges women-led organisations reported are linked to the partnership approaches of INGOs and the predominance of sub-granting models in a humanitarian system that values reaching large numbers of beneficiaries in the most cost-effective way. This may translate into incentives to ‘get the money out the door quickly’, signing a smaller number of agreements with larger civil society partners, rather than a larger number of agreements with smaller organisations, many of which are likely to be women-led.

There is a potential tension between delivering lifesaving services as quickly as possible and working in a way that enables meaningful collaboration. This underlines the importance of investing in emergency preparedness and developing relationships with organisations pre-crisis. There is also a need to explore more creative ways of working, including embedding surge staff in partner organisations or engaging women-led organisations as technical leads, rather than necessarily in direct service delivery.

Collaboration with women responders is a complex undertaking, but the challenges it presents are not insurmountable, and there is significant learning for the sector to draw on on how to mitigate them, including the examples detailed in CARE’s research.  Based on that learning, the research makes five key recommendations to increase the participation and leadership of women responders, and improve humanitarian response overall:

  1. Humanitarian actors should support protection strategies by recognising and engaging with women’s experiences and priorities.
    The term ‘protection’ doesn’t necessarily translate well into the complex realities of people’s lives. Women’s own understandings of protection are strongly gendered, context-specific and deeply personal. Women responders act on their own understanding of protection, which may differ from standard humanitarian definitions. Humanitarian actors should recognise this and engage with women and women responders accordingly.
  2. Humanitarian actors should collaborate with women responders to make humanitarian responses more effective.
    Failing to collaborate with women responders represents a significant missed opportunity to make humanitarian response more contextualised and effective. The value of collaborating with women responders, not only on longer-term programming but also on humanitarian protection, needs to be recognised.
  3. Agencies should formally engage with women responders to emphasise the value of their contribution.
    There is a perception across international humanitarian response that senior managers seldom value the contribution of women-led organisations. This highlights the importance of formalising this type of engagement through partnerships and regional and country strategies, while clearly communicating to staff the value of collaboration with women responders.
  4. Agencies should learn from existing good practice.
    Promising practices of collaboration do exist and should be built on, including supporting links between women responders from the grassroots to the international levels and investing in emergency preparedness. Many examples of good practice are outlined in our report. There is significant learning for the sector in the approaches of partnership-focused international NGOs.
  5. Barriers to women responders’ participation should be removed.
    Women responders face significant barriers in collaborating with humanitarian actors. Actions should be taken to remove barriers to participation in coordination and decision-making spaces. Humanitarian actors should change policies, procedures and ways of working to enable partnerships that put women responders at the centre of humanitarian protection programming.

Read the full report or executive summary.

Helen Lindley-Jones led a CARE research project aiming to strengthen collaboration between women-led civil society organisations and international humanitarian actors, and build a more nuanced understanding of the protection risks women and girls face. Toral Pattni is Senior Humanitarian Advisor at CARE International specialising in protection and gender-based violence. She is currently on sabbatical studying a Masters in International Conflict Studies at King’s College London.


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