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"Women and girls are often excluded from the design and the rationale behind humanitarian work"

We must not assume that natural disasters, refugee crises, or armed conflict affect everyone in the same way, says Isadora Quay from CARE. On the contrary, it is not only imperative to gain an understanding of structural inequalities and discrimination against women, but also to assess gender-specific vulnerabilities in humanitarian emergencies from the very beginning. In this interview with “Ethics and Armed Forces”, she provides many explanations and examples, from the COVID pandemic to gender-specific programming and women leadership in Africa.

Mrs Quay, first of all, could you give us a brief description of your job?

My job is the Global Lead on Gender in Emergencies. CARE is a very large federation with more than a hundred countries. I coordinate amongst all those different countries with different management structures. My responsibility is to set strategic direction on what we are going to do on gender in emergencies. I also make sure that there are structures for that work and they have their appropriate technical teams.

What is the difference between a gender advisor’s and your tasks?

Gender advisors make sure that people understand gender issues that are coming up during a crisis and are able to respond to them. We have a variety of skills, tools, and approaches which we can use to identify those issues and how to respond. They may manage specific programs on gender-based violence, “women, peace and security”, women’s voices, or economic empowerment. 

When did gender aspects start to play a role in humanitarian action and in CARE’s work?

Around the mid-90s, after the Beijing Conference, the United Nations agencies were the first to make a commitment on gender and humanitarian action. These top-level commitments slowly started to be translated into practice. CARE has had a gender in emergencies coordinator and strategy since 2009. We have one of the largest teams on gender and humanitarian action compared to any of the agencies in similar size. I’ve been working in similar positions since 2013, and we have spent a lot of our time over the last decade focusing on how to put into practice these aspirations which are incredibly popular but sometimes also challenging.

CARE’s „Women and Girls in Emergencies“report1 which was published some years ago states that „the specific needs of women and girls continue to be poorly addressed in humanitarian funding and response“. Has there any progress been made in the meantime?

The first strategy on gender in emergencies was set up in 2009. At that time, we had only one gender in emergencies specialist in the whole organization. Now we have more than 44 senior staff working on the topic, and they may have their own teams, which does have implications for funding. The tool kit that we've developed and used now since 2013/2014 has been really instrumental in exploring the different needs of men, women, girls and boys during a crisis and understanding them. Weʼve also seen a lot more action in terms of gender analysis, for example. In 2020, we did more than 50 rapid gender analyses2. This is a very helpful tool, often supplemented with insights from interviews, allows us to identify the gender-specific aspects of a crisis and the society in which it shows. Weʼre seeing similar numbers coming up every year not only from CARE, but many other agencies that use the same methodology. That means that there has been a huge increase in the availability of gender analysis to inform humanitarian response although some of the practice is still challenging and certainly not the measure that we would like to see.

Let's dive a bit deeper into the subject of your work. Can you explain why it is so important to integrate gender issues into humanitarian assistance?

The first reason is because humanitarian action is about people. Gender and humanitarian action work is not just about women and girls, it's about women, girls, men, boys, people with disabilities, older people, younger children. People have different needs at different points in their lives depending on whatʼs happening with them. And those differences matter. We should not be blind to some of the issues that we know are true in society and those issues are just as true during a crisis and often magnified. That is the commonsense approach.

But there’s also a principled approach. If the considerations around humanitarian action are made only by men and only with the idea of the male form in mind, then thatʼs not fair. We saw that even most recently with some COVID protective clothing. It doesnʼt fit women's bodies properly because it was made from menʼs bodies – even something as simple as that! If you design protective clothing that doesnʼt fit women, and women are the majority of health workers around the world, then you are making women less safe. Women and girls are often excluded from the design and the rationale behind humanitarian work even though the world is 51% female.

The pandemic is said to have deteriorated the situation of women in many other aspects. The rise in checkpoints in many countries to enforce lockdowns and curfews, for instance, exposed women to a higher risk of sexual harassment and abuse by policemen and male soldiers …

That’s true. We see similar things at water points during humanitarian crises. If those who manage toilets or taps distributing water in a refugee camp are all men and lots of women are queuing, it will increase the risk and the incidence of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Data show that particularly in crisis and armed conflict gender-based violence and sexual violence increases. How would you explain that?

It is true we observe gender-based violence in all kinds of crises, not just during conflict where thereʼs more military and militarization of society, but also during the COVID pandemic or in natural disasters where different kinds of violence and trafficking increase. In times of great stress, harmful practices, one of which is consistently gender-based violence, seem to bloom. All of the data shows that. But I cannot tell you the ultimate reason why that happens as this is not my area of expertise. I wonder if even experts have an ultimate answer on it …

… which is definitely worrying …

… but there is a great bulk of research that shows that gender-based violence is one of the first kinds of inequality that people can learn in the home and that it replicates itself. Valerie Hudson’s work is very interesting on that. She looks at all forms of gender inequality and her empirical research, based on numbers and data, shows that countries with higher degrees of gender inequality in the home – and they are all around the world – are more likely to suffer conflict. The family household structure is the determining factor in it. She argues that if you learn in the home to oppress another, most of the time along age or gender lines, then you replicate that behavior in your own family, in your community and society. That leads to actual acts of oppression such as conflict itself.

Looking at women’s or more broadly speaking gender-specific needs in times of crisis: How do you proceed to provide gender-specific assistance? Safe spaces for women in refugee camps, for instance, might not be enough.

First and foremost, you need to understand how a crisis is affecting men, women, girls and boys and anybody inbetween and how it is evolving from different people’s perspectives. Of course, you canʼt wait to have the perfect analysis because you have at the same time immediate compelling needs. That’s why rapid gender analysis is designed to be an “imperfect” tool. We publish it within 24 or 48 hours of the onset of a crisis, in the first two weeks and in the first six to eight weeks. We can start programming and keep making changes and improvements as we get more information, and that flexibility is important.

As I have mentioned before, we know that some actions around gender-based violence will be required because this always happens, and it always gets worse. Evidence also shows that womenʼs participation tends to go down during crises although there are new opportunities for women’s voices to be heard. If we do not keep paying attention to that, their voices wonʼt be heard either in assessments and consultations nor in the work that we do. These are the foundation pins of our gender and humanitarian action work at CARE.

What could participation look like in times when you must meet the most basic needs? Does it not risk being treated as a secondary issue due to the urgency of the situation?

Even in an emergency, asking people what they really need and having the flexibility to respond can be very important. In a camp in Iraq in the Kurdish autonomous region, I once asked the Iraqi WASH engineer, an incredibly well-educated gentleman like all the other team members, if he had already thought about the kitchens. He told me that he had put them in the community discussions that day. I said, “Oh that's fantastic, and who's at a community discussion?” He answered: “The leaders.” So I asked, “Hm, and those leaders do a lot of cooking …?” He immediately promised to go and ask some of the women who actually do the cooking in this camp about their preferences.

As you have already mentioned, taking gender into account does not mean to look only at women and girls. Why and when should we also consider the situation of boys and men?

Of course there are crises where men and boys are particularly affected, and it's not always easy for the humanitarian community to see when male vulnerability shows up. I can tell you about refugee camps in Kenya entirely populated by young men who didnʼt know how to cook. Boys are also much more likely to be forced into recruitment, for example. In the refugee crisis in Greece, more than 70% of the population was male, mainly unaccompanied Afghan and Syrian men with lots of minors. Young boys of eight or twelve on the streets on the island of Lesbos will certainly face other problems than young girls, but their vulnerability matters.

Some agencies concentrate wholly on women and girls and that can be fine for certain issues. For CARE, humanitarian action needs to understand the roles and relations everyone has. Even in our work on women’s participation we must consider male participation and male decision-making spaces as well. We may focus on the gap in that case, but we donʼt ignore men and boys. Crisis makes everybody vulnerable, but vulnerable in different ways, and certain vulnerabilities because of systematic inequality are sometimes hidden.

Structural inequalities in society contribute to women’s often disproportionate vulnerability. CARE’s approach is to bring about more equality and empowerment. Does this mean that humanitarian action is not neutral?

The principles of neutrality and impartiality are really important values. But they are playing out in societies which are fundamentally unequal on many levels. I would argue, along with Valerie Hudson, that one of the first injustices we learn in the home is gender injustice. Even in Europe women spend far more time on housework and childcare than men. They are much less likely to be seen as suitable for leadership positions. And that is due to prejudice and tradition. I think itʼs very moral to want to transform and challenge injustice. Humanitarian action can be a moment where we can make some changes happen. Conflict and crises do horrible things to everybody, but they can also provide opportunities to change gender roles in ways that perhaps don't occur during peacetime.

On the other hand, challenging cultural gender norms is often seen as intrusive. What would you reply to that? Did the West try to impose its standards on Afghanistan, for instance?

I think we have a responsibility to try and change inequalities. But I also believe, and I believe many Islamic feminist scholars would agree with me, that inequality is a global phenomenon. How we change it should be very sensitive to the country. I work with many male and female staff who value many things about traditional society and don't want to reject their country or their cultures. At the same time, they want to change things because they donʼt believe that the current system is fair to everyone. Itʼs a myth to pretend that culture is static. Social anthropology shows that it is constantly evolving and being reinvented. Did you know that some of the oldest texts on women's rights were written in Iran? It almost seems to me more western centric to imagine that we are having this debate only in Western Europe and North America.

The Women, Peace and Security agenda stresses the importance of women’s participation in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Is this also part of your work?

We have a large program called “Women Lead in Emergencies” that our politics and governance people and the gender in emergencies team have been working on now for a number of years. In all different kinds of crises around the world, from Colombia to the Philippines to South Sudan, women come together in solidarity, but these are informal groups. Looking from outside you could get the impression that there are absolutely no women on any of the leadership committees. But then you discover that they have created their own ways to support each other and build on the need to connect. We find these groups and support them to take action. We don’t tell them to build this many toilets or to attend this many meetings. They have a budget, and they decide what could make a difference in their community.

I’m eager to know how this looks like in practice.

The Zinder provinces in Niger are very challenging places to work in because of massive displacement. One of the first things the women we supported did was to travel to the mayorʼs office in the next town to campaign because a refugee camp had become very large and needed a school. And they got a school! The next thing they did was to get back on the bus to the mayorʼs office because they had to spend so much time getting water. At the mayorʼs office they were not used to women mobilizing in this way, and only some days later the women had a borehole. Male leaders and local men were impressed to see them achieving this while they had been pushing that issue for ages, like “Wow, these women are strong.”

Weʼve also seen South Sudanese women organize peace conferences in their refugee camps and set up the first ever South Sudanese refugee womenʼs association because that’s what they wanted to do. These examples show how transformative it can be for the women themselves but also for the community to think about women’s leadership and participation as part of humanitarian response.

While we’re doing this interview, the devastating war in Ukraine continues. Can you give us a very rapid gender analysis about the main challenges for humanitarian response?

The crisis is already showing strong gender dimensions in terms of who is staying and who is leaving. That is going to have a big impact on what kinds of experience people have: family separation and reunification, trafficking (we see an increased risk for those who have left), child protection, or going through conflict firsthand. We also support smaller, women-led civil society organisations through our program “Women Lead in Emergencies”. There is a very strong women’s rights movement inside Ukraine which now engages in humanitarian action and needs support. That is one of the things that give me hope.

Dear Mrs. Quay, thank you very much for the interview! 

Questions by Rüdiger Frank.