The invisibility of women and girls affected by humanitarian crises

When there is a disaster or a conflict, women and girls are often excluded, marginalized or ignored by the humanitarian operations that are launched to help them.

By Njoki Kinyanjui, OCHA’s Senior Gender Advisor


In 2011, during the food crisis that gripped the Horn of Africa, I was in the South of Ethiopia taking part in a needs assessment. I remember that our team came across a woman, Tigist, on the side of the road. We asked her about the situation there.

She was distinctly unimpressed by our questions. “I knew this drought was coming six months ago,” she told us. “I till my farm every day and can tell when there are changes. But who bothered to listen to us women? Now we are all hungry.”

It’s a truism in the humanitarian world that women and girls suffer the most during a humanitarian crisis. Study after study, confirms this: how existing gender inequalities worsen, how discrimination and exclusion deepen, how the risks and incidents of sexual and gender-based violence increase, and how achievements, gains and progress on women’s rights retreat.

What’s less widely acknowledged is that the humanitarian community continually fails to properly engage women and girls in the plans, responses and recovery efforts that are launched on their behalf. Their contributions and experiences are underplayed, taken for granted or, at worst, simply ignored.

Tigist asked: “Who bothered to listen to us women?” We certainly had not, and that failure, played out hundreds of times across many regions, was costing lives.


Feb 2013, DRC. Credit: OCHA/Gemma Cortes

Participation is non-negotiable

As the anecdote from Southern Ethiopia highlights, we miss so much when we exclude women and girls. Their capacities, their knowledge, their resilience in the face of adversity, their leadership in the private sphere and their ability to mobilize their communities — all of this is lost to us. All these elements could help us prevent crises, rebuild communities and build peace.

Women should be equal partners — their right to participation seen as non-negotiable. We need to address the barriers to participation and make sure that their voices are heard in the discussions we facilitate. At the same time, we need to harness their ability to mobilize themselves and whole communities to lead transformation.

This also means that the humanitarian and development community has to do a better job at addressing the root causes of exclusion and discrimination — and create an environment that enables the equal and dignified engagement of women in making the much needed progress in their own lives and their communities.


The gender and data divide

One of the main hindrances that humanitarians face is entirely self-inflicted. Technology now allows us to track incredibly detailed information in real time. But despite this, the humanitarian sector consistently fails to gather data that is disaggregated by sex and age and other socially differentiating factors. Without this, the sector remains indifferent to the unique and differing needs of women, girls, men and boys during a crisis.

The failure to collect this data and information — and even worse, the use of data that is blind to the schisms that exist within societies and between different groups –serves to re-engineer and re-emphasize those divisions, deepening the exclusion of women and girls.


The burning platform

We need to get this right, and we need to do it sooner rather than later. Today, the world is grappling with the largest and most complex sets of humanitarian crises in recent memory. In 2015, the UN and its partners are appealing for US$17 billion to assist more than 57.5 million people. According to some estimates, as many as 80 per cent of those affected by some of the worst of these crises — South Sudan and Syria, for example — are women and children.

16 September, Zakho, Iraq. Credit: OCHA/Iason Athanasiadis

International Women’s Day (8 March) was a chance to celebrate the progress and contribution of women and girls. It’s also a chance to start righting a persistent wrong. As the international community reviews the progress of the commitments that were enshrined 20 years ago in the Beijing Platform for Action, it is imperative that we redefine participation and inclusion, and create meaningful spaces for women and girls.

It is only when we meaningfully include the voice and agency of women and girls that we will begin to truly unlock their potential and make real advances to gender equality in humanitarian action.


Njoki Kinyanjui joined OCHA as Senior Gender Advisor in 2014. She has 16 year’s experience in gender equality programming in acute emergencies, protracted humanitarian crises and development contexts. Njoki has worked for a number of organizations across Africa, including the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), UNIFEM (now UN Women), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). She has a Master’s in Gender and Development from the University of Nairobi and a Bachelors Degree in Food Security and Agriculture.