from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

A Feminist Approach to Humanitarian Support

Women line up to received food at a camp for displaced victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Indonesia. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This post is authored by Kristin Kim Bart, Senior Director for Gender Equality, International Rescue Committee.

July 29, 2019

Women line up to received food at a camp for displaced victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Indonesia. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This post is authored by Kristin Kim Bart, Senior Director for Gender Equality, International Rescue Committee.

Feminism is becoming a more significant part of the international discourse, with multiple governments declaring themselves feminist and more non-governmental organizations (NGOs) choosing to take on the mantle. But the humanitarian system seems behind other sectors when it comes to feminism, and there are fewer forthrightly feminist humanitarian response organizations than in the development space.

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Last month, in a speech at Georgetown University, the President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) David Miliband said that the IRC “cannot be a truly successful humanitarian organization…until we are a feminist organization.” The declaration applies to both our internal workings and client-facing programs and sets the IRC as one of the few international humanitarian NGOs explicitly adopting this approach.  We believe this linkage between feminist-based internal practices and impactful program delivery is key and hope to ignite more focus and dialogue in the wider sector by sharing our learning and experience.

A humanitarian organization’s overall goal is the creation and maintenance of stable, empowered and economically prosperous states. In order to get there, we need a humanitarian system that is actually designed and delivered based on an understanding of the structural inequalities at play and the specific opportunities and constraints that clients face. Instead, the current humanitarian system hides behind an approach that we ‘do not have time for that’ and continues to perpetuate discriminatory social norms and biases in its delivery of aid. Because of this, even the most basic best practices for gender equality often go unheeded.

For instance, we have long known that locks on latrines and showers will reduce the risk of gender-based violence, but it is still an all too frequent oversight in Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programming to ensure they are in place.  We also know that in many contexts in order to have direct access and contact with female clients, we need female staff, but again, it is seen has too challenging to work through the social red tape to set up operations in women-friendly, culturally sensitive ways. 

Furthermore, in accessing paid, decent work, refugee women face restrictive labor market laws, increased threat of violence, discrimination, as well as regulatory and administrative barriers. According to our new analysis, conducted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, refugee women could generate up to $1.4 trillion to annual global GDP if employment and wage gaps were closed.

Applying feminism to humanitarian contexts should not be unusual. At its core, committing to feminist principles means that we understand that unequal, patriarchal systems are fundamentally antithetical to humanitarianism.  It means we understand the unequal reality these systems have caused are unethical and counter-productive.  It means we understand patriarchal systems prioritize the voices and needs of men and boys, and have deprioritized the voices, challenges, and needs of women and girls for too long. A feminist approach helps us to uncover our blind spots, and to better understand our contexts and what the world looks like from various vantage points. It directs us to understand power in its many forms; to recognize socialized expectations of all people, including toxic forms of masculinities. It also helps us unpack how patriarchal systems have hurt men and boys, as well as other marginalized and disempowered groups. All of this leads to better outcomes because it causes us to identify areas in which women and girls, and others, are left behind and design programs accordingly to close that gap. 

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Women and Women's Rights

Humanitarian Crises

For the IRC, this means requiring all our programs to conduct a gender analysis in order to have a better understanding of the prevailing gender norms and dynamics in the target community and how to reach the intended outcomes for all its members. This means providing training to our staff to understand these concepts and why our mission is tied to feminism. And we recognize that the way we operate internally is going to be the engine to drive forward feminist programming, so we are making changes inside the organization too. 

The IRC recently launched our first “Gender Equality Scorecard and Action Plan,” an organization-wide three-year plan whose goal is to have a gender balanced workforce by 2022. We aim to have more female staff in leadership and decision making positions, require that all our country programs have at least one female-only employee resource group to identify challenges in our operations and propose solutions, and require that all security plans and procedures are informed and vetted by the female staff to which they apply. We will continue to assess the areas in which we are making progress, identify where there are gaps and take the actions needed to be more feminist across the organization’s operations and culture. 

In sharing our approach, we hope to show that the humanitarian system, the actors within it, and the people we serve all benefit from feminist thinking. We hope to show that feminism should not be the ‘luxury’ of the developed world or the purview of long-term development programs only. The fast-paced world of humanitarian response can and must take the time to understand how women and girls are experiencing conflict and crisis differently than men and boys.  

I know that I, and the IRC, stand on the shoulders of countless feminist scholars, practitioners and organizations that have paved the way, and we are grateful to learn. In fact, one of the main reasons that we came forward to claim a feminist approach is because our female staff and the women’s rights organizations we partner with in the field have called on us to do so. Putting the full force of a large organization behind a feminist approach will, we hope, further their work and ours and, in doing so, transform and improve the humanitarian field as a whole.

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