More female surge staff can reduce sexual assault in disaster response

Finnish and German Red Cross teams respond to the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Photo by: Noora Kero / IFRC / CC BY-NC-ND

This is the first article in a two-piece series looking at the impact of gender balance in humanitarian surge staff and the challenges women and girls face when responding to a disaster.  

When a disaster hits, surge staff are the first on the ground to assess and implement the immediate response required. Currently, the majority of surge staff are male, and this impacts the assistance provided.

Women and girls have different needs and responsibilities in the event of a crisis and pre-existing gender inequalities can often mean their needs are not voiced nor heard as much as men if there aren’t women included in the decision-making. Additionally, the incidents of both domestic and sexual violence against women increase following a disaster, and often there are further negative consequences such as women turning to sex work in order to cope.

A report by ActionAid and CARE International found that a “tendency to overlook the needs of women and girls can happen where humanitarian response teams are made up predominantly of men who speak primarily to male leaders in affected communities.”

“Women are disproportionately affected by poverty and disasters, but even more importantly … they play a hugely, disproportionately, significant role in devising solutions that lift their families out of poverty and their communities as well,” explains Robert Glasser, former head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

If women are not listened to and helped in disaster response, then their ability to help themselves, their families, and their communities, is limited. Devex spoke with experts in this field to get a deeper insight into the problems surrounding a lack of female surge staff: What impacts result from (not) having female staff as part of an initial response, why women are discouraged from surging, and what can be done by various key players — including men — to encourage more women to surge.

The impacts of women in surge

Often, male surge staff do not communicate with the female members of a community that have been affected by a disaster and so, “what can happen in a response is that women's needs get overlooked and they can get made further vulnerable, actually because of the response, rather than actually being more, kind of, helped and having more of their rights met,” explains Sonya Ruparel, deputy humanitarian director of ActionAid International and one of the co-authors of the report.

Sixty percent of total international surge response staff are male, but this can be significantly greater depending on the region. For example, only 27 percent of surge staff deployed to Pakistan are female. Some agencies even specifically look to deploy men first, Ruparel explains, and adds, “I don't mean to hugely generalize — but ... a lot of humanitarian deployments from some agencies tend to be the white man that will just talk over you and not even recognize, particularly, that you're in the room.”

Few organizations have gender policies in place specifically for surge staff, and Ruparel says, “a lot of humanitarian responses are still not very gender responsive. So, you’ll get a lot of humanitarians that kind of say ‘no, we must prioritize the food, water, shelter ... then the kind of women's issues and protection issues can come later’”.

It’s crucial to have a gender balance in response teams according to Ruparel, because, “50 percent of the people that we're working for are women, so 50 percent of our teams must be women. And actually, a good humanitarian deployment team, if it is primarily men, is not a good humanitarian deployment team.”

Not only do female surge staff have a greater tendency to speak and listen to women on the ground, but those women are also more likely to trust in and be open with the female surge staff than their male counterparts. Ruparel explains, “it's very unlikely a woman on the ground is going to have a long chat with a man, a strange man walking into the community, to tell them exactly what their needs are. Much more likely if there’s a — well, a national level staff member, who is a woman, who can spend proper time with women building trust, so that we can actually find out their real needs and support them more appropriately.”

Sexual abuse in disaster response: Having more women is a ‘no-brainer’

One NGO's way to stop staff paying for sex? Hire fewer single men

Jan Weuts, a humanitarian adviser at Caritas Belgium, says the NGO has a way to avoid its staff engaging with sex workers in developing countries: Hire fewer single men. Instead, the aid group tries to send young women or men with families to its field offices.

When asked if she thought having more women in surge would have an impact on the incidents of sexual abuse, like that of the Oxfam scandal that has dominated development headlines recently, Ruparel responded with a definitive yes: “I do. I really, really do ... I think, if you’ve got all your teams at 50 percent women, I really feel that … if there are more women raising voices; holding people to account; you know, sharing stories; sharing unacceptable behavior; complaining properly, I do think it would make a massive difference. And, you know, there's going to be more support for those women on the ground who have been affected by the disaster as well ... I think it’s a no-brainer, for me.”

If there are more female surge staff, women on the ground will be heard and have their needs addressed as equally as the men in the community. They will not become even more vulnerable and will be able to help themselves and their communities back on their feet.

Male surge staff

As well as increasing the number of female surge staff to achieve a gender balance, it is important that male staff are made more aware of the impact they have in disaster response — particularly when involving women. Ruparel reinforces, “it's critical that they … have this kind of sensitization and cultural and gender awareness.”

She explains how, “men just need to be much, much more aware” of the needs of the women and to realize that, at times, “it might be more appropriate right now for the women to take lead of this particular moment, to have this conversation, to lead it. And to encourage and support — with the women — an environment where it's OK to talk about some of the challenges that they’re facing.”

About the author

  • Application%2520photo

    Lottie Watters

    Lottie Watters is a Reporting and Communications Associate based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to Devex’s global development audience. Lottie is a recent graduate with a background in geography and journalism, taking a particular interest in grassroots international development projects. She has worked with organizations delivering clean water and sanitation projects globally.