Resilience in the face of crisis: Women taking the lead

Ramírez holds meetings with community members to get feedback on PRO-VIDA’s food voucher program and to help them make plans to face the ongoing El Nino crisis. Photo: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America

When life-threatening disasters strike, both local communities and global aid organizations respond, bringing their unique resources and skills to the effort. Local leaders play a key role, but often they don’t have the tools to respond as robustly as they wish.

Last week’s International Women’s Day presented an opportunity for groups such as Oxfam and PRO-VIDA to advocate for the needs of women on the front lines of humanitarian emergencies and renew our call for a major shift in the international humanitarian system. They need critical resources to play that role effectively.

Every day we work with strong women who are leaders in vulnerable communities and must be prepared should a disaster strike. Our shared vision is one where communities advocate for their own needs and are able to elect responsible governments that lead the efforts to reduce disaster risks and best protect their communities. The international humanitarian relief organizations — such as the United Nations, Oxfam and many others — must supplement, not interfere with, these efforts.

Examples initiatives: What works

“When women can exercise their rights and gain the knowledge, skills, and information they need, they can become powerful agents of change.”

— Oxfam America's Ray Offenheiser and PRO-VIDA's Karen Ramirez

One new approach to balance the distribution and deployment of life-saving resources is the STRIDE For Self Reliance Act, which we were lobbying for together recently on Capitol Hill. This act will give the U.S. government the flexibility to directly fund country-based disaster preparedness initiatives.

The STRIDE Act will strengthen the resilience of local organizations and people, especially women, to respond to smaller disasters on their own. This will free valuable international humanitarian aid for the most devastating disasters that require major international support.

It emphasizes the needs of women and girls, who are among the most vulnerable in crises, and requires that women be consulted during the process.

This piece is vital, because when women can exercise their rights and gain the knowledge, skills, and information they need, they can become powerful agents of change. Women are the foundation of their families and communities — adapting, sacrificing and taking the lead to meet their loved ones needs. Therefore, they must be central in any plan to prepare for and prevent emergencies, or respond when they strike.

Successful collaborations

Oxfam and PRO-VIDA are working closely together in El Salvador, providing urgent aid to communities that are right now facing multiple challenges: El Nino’s irregular weather patterns have caused drought, floods and food shortages.

El Salvador is historically prone to natural disasters and man-made disasters, but this is now a global trend. In the past two decades the total number of natural disasters has quadrupled, and the number of people affected has increased from around 174 million to an average of more than 250 million a year.

The Zika virus is now also spreading across the country, threatening a public health crisis. Oxfam and PRO-VIDA are providing immediate relief through efforts such as food voucher programs and are also helping communities become more resilient to future extreme weather events through projects such as flood-resistant latrines. We are also working together as part of the WASH Subcommission, a coalition of government and civil society representatives to educate and prevent the spread of the Zika virus.

Oxfam and PRO-VIDA could separately provide these services, but together, the work is so much stronger. Where Oxfam may have the international reach and access to resources, organizations like PRO-VIDA are firmly rooted in the hardest-hit communities, know what the needs are, and understand how to most efficiently meet the needs of those in distress.

‘Owning’ a project

Local groups are also more accountable and accessible to the communities they serve. Working side by side, we can ensure families are able to access healthy food, clean water and other necessities today, and that they have the capacity to handle the next crisis on their own. This emphasis on preparing communities before disasters strike is vital and yet completely underfunded; only 0.4 percent of global humanitarian aid over the past 30 years has been spent on reducing the risk of disasters.

Over the past 10 years, PRO-VIDA has taken ownership of programs to provide clean water and sanitation in emergencies, a job once dominated by international aid agencies. Over this time, it has helped the government better understand international humanitarian standards and adhere to them. In addition, PRO-VIDA has opened the lines of communication between people who face the worst impacts of disasters and the authorities that are responsible for supporting them.

Our international humanitarian system must be drastically overhauled in this way to meet the stark realities of the world today. The STRIDE Act is one important step in the right direction. For Women’s History Month, we are renewing our call for the power to be placed where it should be — in the hands of local leaders — so they can be ready to respond immediately, recover quickly, and rebuild successfully. And be even more resilient in the face of the next disaster, with women in the lead.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Ray Offenheiser

    Ray Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America. With more than 30 years of international development experience as a field programmer, grant-maker and executive in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the United States, Offenheiser is a recognized leader on issues such as poverty alleviation, human rights, foreign policy and international development.
  • Karen Ramirez

    Karen Ramirez is the program manager of PRO-VIDA in El Salvador. As a chemist, she has dedicated her work to improving the safety and accessibility of water in her country.