Women's History Month: Women in the Humanitarian Field

So far this month, we have explored the role of gender as an additional and complex challenge for women refugees, put together a list of resources that bring to light women’s own perspectives of displacement, and shared Aleksandra’s story of her and her family’s recent fleeing of Ukraine.


As March comes to an end, our last post of this International Women’s History month highlights a different position: the women who contribute to the response, protection, and support of people on the move.


It is estimated that of the half million humanitarian workers in the world today, over 40% are women. Providing frontline care during emergencies, conflicts, and natural disasters, women are at the forefront of humanitarian response.


And while the numbers may not seem all that disproportionate, the gender imbalance in humanitarian work is significant. A study by the Humanitarian Women’s Network reports that the ratio between men and women in senior management positions in the humanitarian field is 1 to 0.69. This same report highlights that this number differs in the NGO sector; more women hold positions of leadership in NGOs than in UN agencies. Still, the underrepresentation of women in leadership is striking.


There are undeniable challenges, and obstacles, to being a woman working in the humanitarian world. Women and girls have additional needs in the face of crisis and displacement. Sexual and reproductive health, protection from and response to sexual violence, maternity care and menstrual health are some of these; needs that can be best recognized and responded to by female aid workers. But also, needs that might, to different extents and in different ways, also be experienced by women working in the field. When asked, female aid workers report discrimination, harassment, and sexual aggression in the context of their workplace as additional challenges to their jobs.


And yet, for these same reasons, there are also significant strengths attributable to women involved in the field. Involving women in the planning of responses targeting the specific needs of both displaced women and girls, and humanitarian workers, is vital.


According to UN Women, “Experience and research show that when women are included in humanitarian action, the entire community benefits. Despite this, women and girls are often excluded from decision-making processes that shape the response strategies that affect their ability and that of their community to recover from crisis. Women must be included in decision-making about the forms of assistance, means of delivery, and the provision of the protection and economic and social empowerment opportunities they need so they can be agents of change.”


International organizations are gradually recognizing the need for change. NGOs and grassroots organizations are perhaps already one small step ahead. Europe Must Act, a grassroots organization, can in some way attest to that. Most of our partner organizations, with whom we are lucky to collaborate, are also grassroots and small nonprofits. And yet, these organizations do an amazing job using the limited resources they have. From Greece to Calais to Bosnia, the majority of people holding coordinating and volunteering positions in many of these organizations are, in fact, women. While this is to be appreciated, this gender imbalance can also be read as the fact that tasks involved in providing essential support to people on the move are still traditionally considered jobs to be done by women.


And so, today we not only acknowledge the importance and achievements of women working in the field of humanitarian aid, but we also call on continued efforts to allow women’s voices to be better heard, to be recognized, and to be given the opportunity to become active actors in the response to disasters - in their own and other communities.


And as this International Women’s History Month comes to its end, we might also consider this question: what steps can we take to overcome this gender-based gap in humanitarian action, both in terms of the challenges faced by women on the move, and by women contributing to the field?