Gender and Emergency Assistance in Practice

By: Anna Gorter, Vice Versa

September 3, 2015

This article has been cross-posted from Vice Versa magazine and translated from Dutch.The original version is available here.

By taking the different needs and vulnerabilities of women and men in crisis situations into account, the effectiveness of humanitarian interventions will improve, according to a report by UN Women. Most relief agencies have guidelines and policies in place when it comes to gender equality. But how do you do that in practice, taking gender into account? Margot van der Velden, Deputy Country Director of the World Food Program in Sudan shares her experiences in Darfur.

After years of conflict in Darfur, more than 2 million people are displaced. Among them are many women who are suffering more due to continued violence. Margot van der Velden, Deputy Country Director of World Food Program (WFP) in Sudan, explains: "Particularly in crisis situations, women are the most vulnerable. In many countries you can see that, unfortunately, through violence against women and oppression. In conflict areas, women and children are often left to their fate and have nowhere to go. Moreover, the violence becomes something normal, they get used to it and accept it."

A report by UN Women shows that gender equality programming makes humanitarian action more effective. These programs take into account the different vulnerabilities and needs that men, women, girls and boys have in crisis situations. The report shows that this improves the effectiveness of interventions and allows women to have better access to humanitarian services, such as education, water and sanitation, health and food. In giving relief, it is important to take into account the different needs of men and women.

Van der Velden provides insight into how this works in practice. It is something that sounds simple, such as distributing food, but in reality is not that easy, "We want women to collect the food themselves, but we do not want them to walk far distances with all these heavy bags. Those women have to come to the distribution points: do they have to pay to get there for their transport, do they have to walk there?  Are they waiting for hours in the blazing sun? They always come with children; how do we take care of those children? Do we give the right food to the women? Solutions consist, for example, of a tent that protects the women from the sun or a shelter for the children. According to van der Velden it is very important to do proper analysis, to understand the situation and to find out who the most vulnerable are: 'The biggest challenge is to understand how it works, what the position of the women is and how your program certainly does not hurt, but relieves them a little. It remains very difficult to understand exactly what the role of these women are and what their real problems are as you can otherwise possibly contribute to causing more problems."

Look at the future

A lot of help is provided in refugee camps where people have the right to food assistance. But according to van der Velden, we also need to look further than help. "Many of those camps will continue to be camps, at some point people probably are not going back." Even though the situation in Darfur is still unstable, there is a great desire to keep looking ahead. Van der Velden, "The country remains fragile, but at the same time there is enough hope to keep building it back up. This is also needed as people cannot continue to only receive food.”

When it comes to promoting self-sufficiency, there are sometimes simple solutions. The SAFE (Safe Access to Fuel and Energy) program, for example, teaches women how to produce fuel-efficient stoves. This way they can generate their own income and need less firewood to cook their meals. In an area where there is a great scarcity of firewood and where women and girls face serious safety risks when they have to walk far to collect firewood, an efficient stove is very important. "There are actually very simple technologies that you can learn easily and teach others," says van der Velden.

It is very important to look at the situation and the needs of women, explains Daphne Carliez, Global Coordinator of the SAFE program: "In these circumstances it is not only important that they receive the stove, but that it also suits the needs and cooking habits of these women and they will actually use the stove. There are many programs for efficient stoves that simply have not been effective because, for example, no proper assessment of the situation has been made. "An important element of the programme is that women organize themselves into groups, where they make the stoves themselves, but also develop other activities. "They learn a skill and build on that. These centers become community centers," says van der Velden. Carliez adds, "the SAFE program brings women together in groups where they find a lot of support in each other, discuss their day-to-day issues and help one another."

Gender and relief is about making a very good situation analysis, thinking about practical and simple solutions and ensure that you do not create more problems. But simple it is not according to van der Velden. "Gender in Sudan remains extremely difficult. The good thing is that in Darfur the women speak for themselves. They have suffered so much, they had to solve so many things by themselves. They are the backbone of society and the ones that keep the family going in Darfur."