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Gender in Humanitarian Action: The experiences from Philippines and Yemen in 2014

Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Ms. Hind Alowais
United Nations


Thank you for the introduction, Kieran.  I’m pleased to be here amongst fellow diplomats and humanitarian actors, during what has been an incredible two weeks of programming around the 59th Commission for the Status of Women. This event is one of over 100 events taking place during CSW59, and I would like to thank everyone for joining us for this important discussion.

When we were approached about co-hosting this event with OCHA and the Gender Capacity Project to highlight the progress and challenges of integrating gender equality in sudden onset and protracted humanitarian crises, we leapt at the opportunity.  Our country has a proud history of constant innovation and growth – and this is done only through careful examination of progress and reflection on lessons learned.  We value our strong relationship with OCHA and this event builds upon another event we co-hosted with OCHA during the 69th General Assembly – where we compared the experiences of Yemen and Somalia to uncover best practices for partnership in humanitarian action.


The UAE is also very invested in the countries we are studying today.  We were one of the first and largest donors to the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan and have been investing in Yemen’s development for several years.  We are also active on gender issues here at the UN – with UN Women we are convening a panel series on women, peace and security, in support of the Global Study on the Implementation of UNSCR 1325.  The Series addresses the gaps and challenges in the implementation of 1325, identifies emerging issues, and looks for opportunities to further the goals of the WPS agenda. The UAE also recently donated $1 million to the multi-partner UN Fund for Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict.  The UAE is sensitive to the risks facing women and children during crisis – so our government built the Mrajeeb al-Fahood refugee camp in Jordan, exclusively for families and women arriving alone.  This has served to reduce levels of violence perpetrated against women and children, which, as we all know, is a serious problem in many other refugee camps.


My government is firmly committed to facilitating a deeper and more practical understanding of what women and girls experience in humanitarian contexts and what they need from us in turn.  The UAE,  Under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation (FDF) and President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and with the sponsorship of Her Royal Highness Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently sponsored a meeting of international experts in February to address  women’s and children's health from across the humanitarian and development sectors.   Those experts subsequently issued what we are proud to call the Abu Dhabi Declaration for the health and dignity of every woman and every child in humanitarian settings - challenging us all to foster stronger policy standards for crisis preparedness, rapid response and rapid recovery to better support the resilience of women and children. Also, in recognition of the acute challenges faced by women during humanitarian crises, the Abu Dhabi Declaration which was adopted in February, essentially recognizes the importance of investment by all relevant actors in the reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent, and sexual health of every woman and every child in humanitarian and fragile settings.  We are proud to have been a part of the formulation of such important recommendations – which are distinctive in their holistic approach.  They are applicable across the development and humanitarian continuum, over the life course and for every woman and every child wherever they may be.


Today, I would like to offer some suggestions and recommendations to reinforce gender equality programming and women’s empowerment in humanitarian action in complex emergencies, but first I would like to take a step back and consider the reasons why we are here today.


In preparing for this keynote, I came across a startling statistic. Only 15% of the world's 3.5 billion females live in high-income countries. That means that most women live in low- or middle-income countries. Not surprisingly, the incidence of humanitarian crisis is higher in low-income countries where maternal and perinatal conditions as well as communicable diseases are highly prevalent and account for about 40% of female deaths.

The effects of these risks apply not only to women but also have marked inter-generational effects, as women suffering from poor nutrition, infectious diseases, and inadequate care are much more likely to give birth to infants with low birth weights, whose health and chances of survival are compromised.  The combination of these preexisting factors with situations of humanitarian emergency underlie the structural vulnerabilities to which women are exposed and that form the normal backdrop to women's lives. In sum, as a result of the complexity of pre-existing social inequities, women and children face singular challenges to their health and well-being in situations of complex humanitarian emergencies. 


Complex emergencies are typified by physical displacement, direct physical injury necessitating medical intervention, inadequate access to food and water, psychosocial trauma, and increased evidence of post-event violence directed at vulnerable individuals.


In the rush to provide humanitarian assistance, the appeal to pay attention to gender issues may seem irrelevant. However, it is crucial to ensure that the most necessary and appropriate assistance is offered to the population as a whole.


Women’s traditional roles as care-takers and providers for families means they are well placed to advise agencies on appropriate sanitation, water, feeding, and health care services. Yet humanitarian responses often fail to appreciate both the importance and opportunity of women’s existing roles and their capacity to play an equal role in leadership and decision-making.

Today we are here to take a careful look at the progress, experiences, and challenges of integrating gender perspectives into humanitarian responses, with a focus on two very different types of emergencies – the sudden onset emergency caused by Typhoon Haiyan and the protracted crisis in Yemen.


In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines. Almost 15 million people were affected and 1.2 million homes damaged or destroyed, displacing more than 4 million people. Tragically, at least 5,600 people were killed and over 26,200 injured. Unfortunately, the size and scale of disasters like these are on the rise and are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change, rapid urbanization, and environmental degradation.


When facing this challenging future of storms, floods, and droughts, the active participation of all sections of society – particularly women – is crucial for building resilience and well-being of all communities and nations. Disasters affect women and men differently and due to deep-seated gender inequalities, women are at greater risk of suffering from disasters. But discrimination against women does not only accentuate women’s vulnerabilities during disasters – to my earlier point -- it also wastes women’s potential as source of resilience.


Disaster studies undertaken in recent years in Southeast Asia found that more women than men died as a result of the catastrophes in the region. Gendered dimensions of such deaths include, for example, restrictions on clothing, the burden of carrying small children, and the unwillingness to leave small children behind, all which made the physical necessity to flee perilous.


And, as disasters place even greater stress on socio-economic capacities, as social nets disintegrate, and as the composition and structure of households fray, women's marginal status in families and communities can further destabilize.


Experience of past disasters in the Philippines – and elsewhere – suggests that rates of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, abuse and trafficking are likely to rise. A lack of female police officers, the scarcity of women-only spaces in evacuation centers, and disrupted maternal and reproductive health services have made the challenge of reducing the risks to vulnerable groups that much harder.


All these challenges are further exacerbated by the incidence of a rise in women-headed households in multiple emergency contexts.


While we look forward to hearing from Anu Pillay, the Gender Capacity Adviser who was on-the-ground in the aftermath of Haiyan on lessons learned from her experience there, in reflection of what we know about the dynamics following sudden onset disasters, some recommendations as proposed by the IASC working group in November last year include:

  • Special measures should be taken to remove barriers facing women and girls seeking to access facilities and services, and who wish to participate in the response.
  • Women should also be involved in decision-making on the design, delivery, and implementation of services, such as water, sanitation, food and shelter facilities, and advocating for effective and appropriate security.
  • Examples of food distribution measures include creating ‘safe spaces’ and separate queues for women, and timings which enable them to return home before nightfall.
  • In shelters and emergency centers: ensure that women and girls without male companions are provided with safe spaces separate from unrelated men; that access to latrines is well-lit and close to the camp; and that the risk of exploitation for internally displaced persons, in particular, women and children, to have their needs met is minimized.

Turning to the situation in Yemen… Despite positive political developments in 2013, Yemen continues to be a large scale humanitarian crisis, with more than half the population or 14.7 million people in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.

The weakness of rule of law institutions and protection systems, as well as the proliferation of small arms, makes women and children and other groups vulnerable to grave violations of their rights and significantly exposes them to exploitation and gender-based violence. Women, girls and boys are particularly vulnerable because of the lack of access to protection, education, health care, and economic opportunities.  Their situation remains precarious due to limited access to basic services, protection, and livelihoods opportunities.

It is our strong belief that continued instability in Yemen will affect the entire region, and as a result, between 2010 and 2013 the UAE has provided close to 300 million dollars in foreign aid and assistance to Yemen – with funds coming from over 15 different organizations, partnering with other organizations to accomplish extraordinary things, such as:

  • Construction of a national cancer treatment center in Sana’a;
  • Provision of medical equipment to hospitals;
  • Supporting school enrollment programs for children, especially girls;
  • Bringing a mobile “eye camp” to provide eye treatments and eyeglasses to remote areas in Yemen;
  • Extending social services to orphans and special needs.

These are in addition to our government funded emergency food aid and food security programs.


While each protracted crisis is distinct occurrence, there are several common characteristics which are often present.


  • duration or longevity
  • conflict
  • weak governance or public administration
  • unsustainable livelihood systems and poor food security outcomes
  • breakdown of local institutions

In many of these cases there is a two-way relationship between unsustainable livelihoods and protracted crises in which either condition can cause the other.


As a direct result of rising food insecurity and livelihood disruption, those countries that are in the midst of a protracted crises will usually receive a high proportion of humanitarian versus development assistance.  The average undernourishment in those countries is almost triple that of other developing countries and the instance of undernourishment only increases as the crises drag on. The ability of people to support themselves is severely diminished due to displacement, loss of resources, and economic decline.


The impacts of these crises on women differ; women face higher risks of sexual abuse and gender-based violence and are more significantly affected by reduced access to health and education services. In addition, men will often leave their homes to look for work or to join the fighting, and therefore the responsibility of heading the household is passed to women.


Later, we will hear from Anabel Carreras regarding her observations from her experience in Yemen, but it is our view that the importance of, and the opportunity to, ensure that the needs of women and girls, and the promotion of gender equality, is greater during protracted crises given its ongoing nature.   Therefore, needs assessments and key strategic discussions must also involve the engagement and participation of women and girls, not only in identifying needs and concerns but to ensure that they are active participants in the design of strategies and services. This includes women and girls’ access to and participation in education, income generating activities, and reproductive health. More concretely, this means that mechanisms should be put in place in all activities to ensure a safe space for women and girls to participate, including in single sex discussion groups.


Today, we hope to showcase the achievements of the Gender Capacity Standby Project in building capacities of humanitarian actors at the country-level to mainstream gender equality programming in all sectors of humanitarian response.  The GenCap initiative was established by the Inter-Agency Standby Committee to strengthen the inclusion of a gender and protection perspective in humanitarian projects.  The initiatives deploy gender (GenCap) advisors to humanitarian crisis where they work to make sure humanitarian leaders and other personnel address the specific needs of affected populations related to gender, when they plan and implement humanitarian projects. In many instances, gender and protection issues are interconnected and can be addressed simultaneously.


While the humanitarian system has become better at delivering humanitarian assistance, such as food items, many humanitarian actors find it a challenge to maintain a presence in the field. Activates relating to protection and gender, which requires direct contact with the affected population, are therefore more challenging to implement. This underscores the importance of the GenCap initiatives.


The panel that follows will offer us all an opportunity to strengthen our ability to implement gender equality programming through the lens of these two crises.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank OCHA for inviting the UAE to co-host this event with the Gender Standby Capacity Project and offer a special thanks to our panelists for your service and also for sharing your views with us, in the hope that we are able to better address the needs of all people affected by crisis.

Thank you.