Q&A: Bringing gender into humanitarian reform

By Elizabeth Dickinson 23 May 2016

Yannick Glemarec, deputy executive director at U.N. Women. Photo by: UNDP / CC BY-NC-SA

This week’s World Humanitarian Summit will ask all its 5,000 attendees to be a part of reforming an overstretched system. United Nations agencies are no exception, and each agency is likely to arrive in Istanbul with a set of commitments to rethink their work. As some of the largest coordinating and implementing bodies in the humanitarian landscape, U.N. agencies may well set the tone for change.

That’s a big opportunity, U.N. Women Deputy Executive Director Yannick Glemarec told Devex ahead of the summit. His agency is looking at ways that women’s empowerment can increase the efficiency and efficacy of humanitarian relief. Women can be the key to building a smoother continuum between relief and development, Glemarec said. U.N. Women’s five core commitments offer a sample of the types of reforms to expect from the U.N. this week.

Here are the highlights of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

What would make the World Humanitarian Summit a success from your perspective?

A success would be to reach a global consensus on the new paradigm for humanitarian assistance. Right now, we are about to smash up against the wall again: We have never allocated so much to humanitarian relief and yet the needs have never been so big. The more we allocate, the less we can meet the needs.

That [situation] calls for a different approach and one that recognizes that protracted crises are indeed protracted. The average time of displacement is now 17 years, and currently, we often repeat 17 times the same kinds of activities. It’s very important to recognize the needs of people who have been displaced for a long time. We need to fully liberate their potential so that they can rebuild their lives. For me, one of the main [measures of] success for the summit will be whether we are able to build those synergies between the humanitarian and development [communities].

Walk us through what this looks like specifically for U.N. Women.

If you look at where we are going, it is not a very pretty picture. But actually we have solutions that have been totally underleveraged, and one of them is women’s engagement in humanitarian action. We know that women’s engagement can, first, reduce the likelihood of crises, second, increase efficiency of humanitarian assistance, and third, accelerate the recovery and a move toward sustainable development.

One of the reasons is that women are often the first responders. They are the ones who have to ensure the safety and livelihood of communities throughout the humanitarian crisis and development continuum. [If they are empowered] to fully play this role as a change agent, we could dramatically accelerate efforts toward ending need.

Unfortunately right now the potential of women as first responders and change agents is often not fully recognized, and their specific needs are often not prioritized. Despite the fact that they can be extremely effective as first responders and in recovery, they face barriers in terms of gender discrimination and bias. They also have specific needs in terms of protection, access to certain information and health services. Those needs are not prioritized. And so rather than having women as first responders and change agents, we often end up disempowering them and discriminating against them.

Since this summit is about reform, what commitments or goals is U.N. Women prepared to put forward in Istanbul?

One of the ambitions of the summit is to get all the key humanitarian stakeholders to commit to scaling up their action, to increasing efficiency, and developing synergies between humanitarian relief and development. U.N. Women will make a number of commitments [in Istanbul.]

First is localization: We want to make sure local women’s groups have the support they need. Second is access to health. Third is implementing a coordinated global approach to gender based violence. Unfortunately in crisis situations, we see a rise in [gender-based violence]. One in 5 women suffer from GBV in the aftermath of a crisis. It’s very hard to get statistics on this, but it’s very likely that if anything [that number is] an underestimate. Fourth, we want to ensure that humanitarian action is gender responsive, both in terms of leveraging women as change agents and also addressing their specific needs. Finally is [creating] an accountability framework.

U.N. women will make specific commitments under each of these five core commitments. One of the areas where we will make the largest commitment is in making a gender responsive humanitarian response. We will also make specific commitments in terms of the gender inequality of risk — the fact that more women die during any kind of crisis, and sometimes the numbers can be mind-boggling. For example in tsunamis when it can be 80-90 percent of the victims are women. Also, [we are focusing on] increasing the resilience of women to political and economic shocks. We are also making some relatively bold commitments in terms of the percentage of our assistance that will be channeled through local organizations.

This is the first time that the U.N. has organized a major summit around the idea of everyone showing up with their own individual commitments, rather than pushing stakeholders toward a specific goal. Do you think it will work?  

Right now the indications are fairly good in the sense that we have a very strong representation in terms of countries [that will attend]. I believe 165 countries and 60-70 heads of states are expected. Normally when countries are represented at such a senior level, they tend to make commitments that are commensurate with the representation.

How have women’s and girls’ needs changed as the number and magnitude of humanitarian crises has increased?

Basically, [their main need is] to rebuild their lives. We are not speaking about [displaced persons] waiting patiently to return to their place of origin. It’s ensuring that this life is a life of dignity, and for women, it’s also ensuring that their kids are going to school — that we do not have a lost generation or two lost generations.

We increasingly see female-headed households in refugee camps and among displaced in urban areas. We are ensuring that they can have livelihoods, so for example U.N. Women is working on increasing the resilience of girls and women to shocks. In the case of protracted crises, it’s enabling them to establish small and medium-sized enterprizes. Especially in places where they cannot have a labor permit, but they can perfectly still establish their own enterprise. Often this is a win-win between refugees and host communities because refugees are not powerless people, they often have skills, networks, abilities, and they often highly innovative and creative people. In case of protracted crises, we have to look at displaced persons and refugees as human capital.

You mentioned the move toward local organizations. What are the opportunities and the logistical challenges of making this happen?

These organizations are there before the crisis and will be after the crisis. You are not speaking of humanitarian operators who fly in for a few weeks and then go away. These are people who give real meaning to the concept of resilience.

Often what happens in a crisis, for example an extreme weather event, is that you have a complete disruption of the logistical networks: The airports are inoperational, the rail stations don't work and so on. The local organizations often have their own logistical networks and often have the capacity to go beyond the capital and reach those in extreme situations. For example after the earthquake in Nepal, we were able to work with a local women’s organization to reach 43,000 women who were being left behind, who lived outside urban areas. The same organization is also leading the post-disaster reconstruction efforts. We are working to help them rebuild better and more sustainably, and often in a gender-sensitive manner.

This is a huge opportunity. The main challenge [of working with these groups] is that you are usually working with an organization that has never prepared a proposal in their lives. They often won’t speak english, so with the time they would need to prepare a project document, it is too late. One of the roles of U.N. Women is to empower these local organizations, to help them in preparing and proposal writing and reporting. We see ourselves as a facilitator.

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About the author

Dickenson beth full
Elizabeth Dickinson@dickinsonbeth

Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.

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