Displaced women’s aid and security needs overlooked
Aid agencies and donors are failing to take into account the relief and security needs of women displaced by disasters and conflicts, according to Elisabeth Rasmusson, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
For example, in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber Pakhtunkwa province, cultural practices mean Pashtun women cannot be seen by men who are not family members. So when the worst floods in the country’s history devastated their homes in July, they faced serious problems.
Unless the aid agencies on the ground had female assessment teams and other staff in place, these women were “invisible” and could not even visit the toilets during the day, Rasmusson told AlertNet in an interview.
The assistance they received – including clean water, food, sanitation and access to maternity care – was limited, she said.
“Worse, during Ramadan, women were fasting from sunset to sunrise, but they were also looking after the kids so the kids didn’t have food or drinks for 12 hours. Many babies and small children were totally dehydrated,” recalled Rasmusson, who visited the region in August.
This is just one example where women’s humanitarian needs have been overlooked, said the head of the NRC, an organisation that promotes and protects the rights of people who have been forced to flee their homes.
Around the world, millions of women uprooted by war live in fear of abuse and discrimination, aid workers say.
There are more than 43 million people displaced by conflict, three quarters of them estimated to be women and children, according to NRC. Some have fled to another part of their own country and others have crossed borders.
“Women are exposed to assault and injustice in all kinds of environments, and by anyone from a military soldier to family members,” Rasmusson said. “And often perpetrators go free, so there is little risk in abusing, raping, kidnapping or killing women.”
A binding Security Council resolution, passed 10 years ago, calls for women and girls in conflicts to be protected from rape, but only around 20 countries have implemented it. A recent U.N. report said sexual violence is an increasingly common weapon of war.
Simple measures such as making sure camps for the displaced are well-lit, building toilets within compounds, and letting civilians – instead of armed troops – run the camps can help provide safety for women, Rasmusson said.
But displaced women’s voices are not being heard, often because of “a total lack of understanding of the situation on the ground”, she added.
Donor indifference also means funding for activities to protect women from violence and discrimination has been decreasing.
With Pakistan’s flood response, for example, only 13 percent of the money needed to protect women has been provided, and in Zimbabwe, only 10 percent of this work is funded.
“Few donors are willing to fund protection activities because they’re not visible. The food, the shelter, the water, the health – all visible, tangible, concrete,” Rasmusson said.
One factor hampering displaced women’s security is the increased militarisation of protection, which is seen as the job of armed personnel even though it encompasses physical and mental safety as well as human rights, Rasmusson said.
She cited Democratic Republic of Congo as an example, saying U.N. peacekeepers there have a “contradictory mandate”. Although protecting civilians is part of their mission, they were involved in military operations last year with the Congolese army “which is one of the main perpetrators” of sexual violence against women, the top refugee official said.
“What kind of signal is that sending when you have people who are supposed to protect you supporting those who are violating your rights?” she asked.
From March to December 2009, U.N. troops backed the DRC military in an operation against Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo’s east. Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, accused the army (link:http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/11/02/eastern-dr-congo-surge-army-atrocities) of widespread rape and brutal killings during that time.
The rising trend of displacement in urban settings, like Kabul and Mogadishu, also leaves women and children more exposed, because of higher crime levels in cities and difficulty of access for aid agencies.
Protecting women more effectively requires a deeper understanding of the role of men in conflict, Rasmusson said, as they change from providers to warriors once they take up arms. And that aggressive role may well continue even after conflict has ended, leading to a rise in domestic violence.
Rasmusson urged peace negotiators to make more effort to seek and incorporate displaced women’s voices and needs into peace agreements and other post-conflict processes.
“We have seen time and time again (that) only women can communicate their own needs – not the men, not the foreigners, not all the international experts negotiating these peace agreements,” she said.