From displacement to resettlement, women and children are the face of this humanitarian crisis

Samaher, mother of three (center) helps her children — Isra (left) and Mohammad (right) — with their studies. This Syrian refugee family left their home in Damascus, Syria in 2012 and arrived in Jordan. Samaher joins other women who regularly visit the IRC Women’s Center in Irbid to receive support, including counseling, safety planning and empowerment activities. Timea Fauszt/IRC

Today — on International Women’s Day — women and girls live in a world that is more insecure than at any time in recorded history. More than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict and disaster. Seventy-five percent of them are women and children. Yet, what we see on our television screens and in our social media feeds does not match what we know to be true — that women and children are the face of this humanitarian crisis.

We see this most prevalent these days in the rhetoric out of Washington. Whether it’s restrictions on refugee resettlement or budget cuts to domestic and humanitarian programs alike, it’s women and girls who will bear the brunt of those decisions more than anyone else, both during their displacement overseas and right here in their new homes in the United States.

These decisions will have very real consequences for women and girls. We must keep talking about them. What barriers are preventing us from seeing this as a gendered crisis and responding accordingly?

It starts by not recognizing even basic facts about how exclusion and biases that women and girls face are compounded by insecurity and displacement. We know that women and girls in crisis are specifically targeted for sexual violence and rape. In fact, sexual violence against adolescent girls has been reported in all 51 countries that have experienced conflict since 1986, and we know the same to be true for women. We also know that women and girls face greater restrictions on their mobility during crises, making them literally less visible, less able to access basic services, and more vulnerable to early and forced marriage. This is borne out by the fact that nine of the top ten countries with the highest rates of early marriage are considered fragile states.

Despite the clear and distinct impacts crises have on women and girls, humanitarian aid is not designed and delivered based on an understanding of the specific constraints that women and girls face or the opportunities available to them. Unfortunately, aid often replicates these discriminatory social norms and biases in its delivery. We sometimes see even the most basic best practices for gender equality going unheeded. For instance, we know that locks on latrines and showers will reduce the risk of gender-based violence, but it is an all too frequent oversight in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programming to ensure they are in place. In short, aid organizations are not effectively delivering to women and girls.

How do we shift the narrative, so we can recognize what the evidence and our experience is telling us? We need to hold each other — political leaders and aid workers — accountable for sifting through the rhetoric to ground-truth what we know to be happening in crisis after crisis around the world by showing clear and convincing evidence of where we are falling behind and where we are forging a path to progress.

A great place to start would be recognizing that we know without question the power of investments in women and girls to drive the delivery of better aid. We know that the more gender equal a country is, the lower the prevalence of violence against women. We also know that despite the fact that violence against women and girls occurs in every conflict and disaster, only 53 percent of humanitarian protection actors prioritize gender-based violence (GBV) prevention in the earliest stages of an emergency. If we truly want to achieve #BetterAid, we have to prioritize women’s and girls’ equality and empowerment. We must hold the entire humanitarian system accountable for reducing the risk of violence to women and girls, and we must close the funding gap that allows for GBV programming to receive only 0.5 percent of all humanitarian funding.

Even when we are making progress, however, we aren’t doing enough to highlight that progress with policymakers, with the media, or even with our own colleagues in the aid community. We have to own our failures, but we also have to own our successes. At the International Rescue Committee, we work in over 30 countries and 26 US cities to help people survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. In FY 2016 alone, we provided safe spaces for nearly 160,000 women and girls, health and psychosocial services for over 20,000 reported incidents of gender-based violence, and economic and social empowerment programming for over 16,000 men and women.

We have witnessed first-hand what a difference dedicated resources, safe spaces, and services can mean to survivors of violence, whether in our programs overseas or right here at home in the US. For many women and girls, the support they receive from us marks the first time they can envision not only recovering from unspeakable violence, but becoming powerful, resilient, courageous agents of change in their own right. I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate our lived commitment to this year’s International Women’s Day theme — #BeBoldForChange — than to challenge all of us to lift up the stories of women and girls in conflict and crisis and demand that our politicians and peers do the same.

For more information about our work to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls, please visit: www.rescue.org and www.GBVResponders.org.


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 30 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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