World Humanitarian Summit: Time to shift power to women on the frontlines

ActionAid held an alternative summit on challenging the status quo by empowering women first responders

Nepal earthquake 2015: ActionAid worked with women’s groups on distribution of emergency kits

The World Humanitarian Summit kicked off in Istanbul yesterday amidst a sea of dark suits and the occasional splash of colour – a clear depiction of where the power lies in the global humanitarian system.  

While women can be spotted observing the Summit, it’s much harder to spot them speaking at official High Level Round Table discussions, or on panels at side events.

There’s a lot of talk about a new agenda ‘fit for purpose’ or so they say, along with an echo that keeps bouncing off the walls about how important the involvement of women is to the future agenda for humanity.  

Sometimes women are lumped in with the children, conveniently ignoring the little thing called patriarchy that has resulted in the historical exclusion of women from decision making in every sphere.  The other popular mantra is that we need to invest in local partners although humanitarian actors struggle to name what they personally are willing to give up.   

It feels like everybody’s talking the talk but sadly, nobody’s actually listening.

So as the suits rocked up to the Hilton in Istanbul en masse, a small but passionate group of women first responders came together at their own alternative summit.

With support from the Australian Government, ActionAid’s Women First Responders Summit provided space for women emergency leaders from Africa, Asia and Pacific to organise and mobilise in order to challenge the status quo.  It brought together women’s organisations and local women leaders that have responded to recent emergencies: from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, to the Ebola crisis in Liberia, drought in Kenya and tropical cyclones in the Pacific.

With the proliferation of esummit meetingxperts across every humanitarian sector, these inspirational women deserve recognition as experts in their own right. Despite limited resources to document their efforts to respond, they are best placed to work with affected communities.  They have vital knowledge on local culture and custom that can support more effective and sustainable humanitarian response.  

They are providing incredible leadership across many fields: using community media to document women’s experiences in disaster; training community leaders to avert the spread of Ebola; mobilising women to identify and respond to their own protection risks; representing women’s voices on local disaster management committees; and providing leadership in relief distributions, livelihood recovery and psychosocial support.

What’s impressive in this story is the numerous hurdles that women have had to overcome to lead in emergency response; hurdles that are consistent across diverse contexts.  

Male dominated leadership continues to limit the space for women’s access to decision making and gives limited – if any – recognition to their efforts. Their unpaid care burden has magnified in each emergency, particularly in the face of poor public services and infrastructure.

For some, lack of information and even access to education has also challenged women’s ability to participate.

However, what’s clear is that women are incredibly resilient and refuse to stay silent.  The Women First Responders’ Summit delivered a powerful call to delegates attending the World Humanitarian Summit that they want more than empty commitments on paper to catalyse action to achieve gender equality.  

They want commitments to translate into policies and plans that are costed into national budgets with strong accountability mechanisms and regular reporting on progress.  Women want support for their organising and mobilising efforts and no less than 50 per cent of funding that will be earmarked for ‘local partners’.  

They also want recognition and inclusion in the UN humanitarian cluster coordination system and a separate structure to independently monitor gender equality in each response.  

Women first responders are also demanding that governments eradicate sexual and gender based violence by resourcing early education in schools and most summit meeting2importantly, ending the impunity for the continued sexual exploitation and abuse of women in crisis.

The message to the men in suits is clear: it’s about recognition, representation, resources and respect for women’s rights.  

ActionAid is on board and has issued its commitments for the World Humanitarian Summit which include ensuring at least 50 per cent of our implementing partners in humanitarian action are women-led or women’s organisations by 2020; that 50 per cent of humanitarian staff at all levels are women; and to increase funding and support to local and national women’s groups as equal partners in our emergency response work.  

As we head into the second and final day of the Summit, we’ll be standing behind the women frontline responders attending events, and supported to speak out and be heard where they can. What’s clear is that there is a lot more work to do beyond the World Humanitarian Summit.

Today provides an opportunity for women from around the world to consolidate their messages, and to plan how they will, together, continue to push for an agenda that will protect them and their rights.

ActionAid stands behind them today and will continue to in the weeks, months and years to come. We’re committed to taking action to shift the power.

Michelle Higelin, ActionAid Australia’s Deputy Director, is reporting from the World Humanitarian Summit.

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