Women leaders such as Karen Ramírez, head of PROVIDA, an Oxfam partner in El Salvador, are an example of women as agents of change in the humanitarian sector. Photo by: James Rodriguez / Oxfam America

Today’s headlines bring bleak reminders of the great complex needs around the world — from the renewed threat of Ebola, to increased hunger in South Sudan, and families caught up in on-going conflicts such as Syria and Yemen. The stories that follow these headlines often mention local women. After all, women are disproportionately impacted by conflicts and disasters.

The World Health Organization reports that disasters such as droughts, floods, and storms kill more women than men as a result of structural gender inequalities, including women’s lack of influence or control over decision-making. A majority of the 1 in 8 people around the world who experience hunger are women. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently put the spotlight on the widespread rape of women in South Sudan. About two-thirds of Syrian refugees worldwide are women or children.

“When women’s voices, leadership, and needs are prioritized, whole nations benefit.”

— Abby Maxman, president and CEO, Oxfam America

The stories we hear most frequently are stories about women’s needs, but what about women as agents of change? Stories of local women first responders, humanitarian aid workers, and water specialists are rarely told.

A local leader: Karen Ramírez

Women leaders like Karen Ramírez, head of PROVIDA, an Oxfam partner and leader in El Salvador, are examples of women as agents of change in the humanitarian sector. For the last 20 years, Ramírez has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of El Salvador’s poorest — especially in emergencies. As a graduate student in chemistry pharmacology, she studied water quality and could see that people with power and money had access to all the water they wanted, while those in poor communities had to invest hours each day getting the minimum they needed to survive. It was an injustice that moved and angered her — and one where, with her technical background, she felt she could make a difference.

And she has. From the capital to far-flung rural communities, Ramírez has installed wells designed to resist contamination, worked to improve access to water in emergencies, and advocated for safe sanitation. When Oxfam and partners set out to build a national team of effective local humanitarian responders in El Salvador, Ramírez became the key technical trainer. For more than 10 years, she helped the national team and many community volunteers become experts in clean water and sanitation in emergencies — a job once considered the domain of international aid providers.

“Traditional global humanitarian responses to emergencies do not strengthen our communities or local organizations,” Ramírez told us. They weaken us and make us dependent. Oxfam believes in building on local capacity. Instead of bringing international staff to do things for us, they have taught us how to do the things ourselves.”


First, while local responders, including women, tackle crises regularly, these efforts are rarely covered by the media. Second, the standard operating procedure remains internationally led action supported by a financial structure that undermines the important role local actors are, and could be playing, especially women. Only a sliver of global humanitarian assistance goes to local actors. In 2016, it was 2 percent, and less than 0.3 percent was given directly to local civil society. In addition, there is no available data on how much of assistance goes to actors focused on the advancement of women’s rights because humanitarian funding reaching women’s rights actors is not globally measured or tracked.

Women are also underrepresented at all levels of decision-making in the humanitarian sector. Recent research tells us that men still constitute the majority of humanitarian actors, and women all too frequently only serve in symbolic roles.

Underrepresentation undermines the effectiveness of humanitarian action and its potential for transformative changes in support of gender equality. Indeed, less than 2 percent of all humanitarian programs between 2011-2014 had gender equality as a primary goal, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report.

How can we work to change this?

1. Put women at the helm in times of disaster.

There is increasing evidence that women’s leadership and involvement contributes to better disaster preparedness and risk reduction, more effective and efficient response, and stronger peace building. For example, research on the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women and peace and security provides evidence that women’s participation in peace processes is paramount to successfully reaching and implementing peace agreements. In fact, agreements were/are 35 percent more likely to last for at least 15 years when women were/are included as witnesses, signatories, mediators, or negotiators. In a field in which 50 percent of all peace agreements fail within five years — the impact women can have is even more dramatic.

2. Lead locally.

While transforming gender roles is a project that will take generations, it can be jump-started in moments of crisis. And international NGOs can play an important role in making that change by putting local actors in the lead.

From South Sudan to Nepal and the Philippines, we have seen the value of shifting power, resources, and responsibility, whenever possible, from international to local actors. It’s smart policy — strengthening the capacity of more local actors to respond to crises and leaving them the space to lead. Yet we still have a long way to go to achieve this transformation. As we work to redress power imbalances in the humanitarian system, women leaders are an important constituency that deserves greater attention.

3. Provide training and resources.

The spirit of change Ramírez brings inspires us to invest not only in local capacity, but in women leaders. We must view and support women as active agents in humanitarian action. And that goes for us at Oxfam as well. With training and resources, capable local organizations can provide the support people require, including preparing for and preventing disasters, promoting gender equality, and paying attention to the different needs of women and girls.

Ensuring that local women are at the center and in the lead, is a key part of this vision. When women’s voices, leadership, and needs are prioritized, whole nations benefit. We must be eager to listen to and work alongside these key partners to strengthen communities and save lives together.

Oxfam America was a changemaker partner at June’s Devex World. To hear more from them and to catch up on the day’s events, click here.

About the author

  • Abby maxman oxfam america highres tb  9385 lqjy37d

    Abby Maxman

    Abby Maxman is Oxfam America's president. She brings over 25 years of experience in international humanitarian relief and development to her role. Prior to joining Oxfam, she served as deputy secretary general of CARE International in Geneva providing leadership of the Secretariat and across the CARE confederation.