As the Philippines Reel, Empowering Women in the Face of Disaster Is an Imperative

As aid agencies mobilise to relieve suffering in the Philippines following the devastation wrought by super typhoon Haiyan, the impact of emergencies on women and girls will once again be thrown into sharp relief. As will the imperative of empowering women to develop their self-confidence, to speak up and tell their own stories as a means to increasing their protection against violence and abuse.

We are all familiar with the phrase “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”. In the late 1990s this now famous proverb helped shift the way rich nations tackle famine in poor countries.

It moved governments and aid agencies on from simply dealing with the consequences of hunger to addressing its root causes – and crucially, in advance.

Today, the UK government’s food aid programmes include investment in local farms, education in climate proof agriculture, effective transport and storage and a full range of preventative measures designed to make a long-term shift in the structural causes of poverty.

This same approach must now be applied to preventing the rape, sexual abuse and humiliation of tens of thousands of women and girls every year, during emergencies.

UK secretary of state for international development, Justine Greening, will this week host an international summit to develop recommendations for tackling violence against women and girls in emergencies.

Practical solutions will be at the heart of the debate, from locks on toilet doors in refugee camps, to better lighting and security patrols.

However, whilst women’s security during emergencies is vitally important, if the government wants to see real change, it must also look at tackling the root causes of violence against women before crisis breaks. One in three women will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime and the abuser is usually known to her.

Put simply, a society that tolerates violence against women and girls generally is a society that will be even more violent towards women and girls during war, famine or environmental disaster.

Zynab Sennesie, who coordinates ActionAid’s ‘Reducing Violence Against Women’ project in Sierra Leone, has witnessed first-hand how violent cultural attitudes towards women were exacerbated by an emergency situation. She told me that such violence was an issue that was present in Sierra Leone even before its civil war in the late 1990s.

“It was embedded in our cultural practises. During the war, violence against women took an ugly turn. Women were used as weapons to humiliate and bring shame upon their husbands, fathers, and communities. Rape was common, used by soldiers and rebel forces to force men to join their ranks or to bring public shame.”

That’s why ActionAid works with women’s groups that campaign for women’s rights at all times – including during emergencies. These are women who demand recognition of their human rights, not just in public but in the home, where most violence against them occurs.

Women themselves are the single most effective force for the prevention of violence in developing countries.

By strengthening women’s agency and leadership and mobilising them into an active campaigning force, women in turn increase their own protection. When women find their voice they can demand accountability from their governments, the justice system and ultimately the men who abuse them.

Justine Greening’s focus on the practicalities is rightly to be welcomed. Yet if she is going to succeed in her quest to truly eliminate violence against women and girls during emergencies then she must also focus on prevention, structural issues and root causes.

The fact is that violence against women is itself an emergency. A silent one, that is on-going. The good news is that if we deal with violence at its source, we are more likely to succeed.

Find out more about ActionAid’s work addressing vulnerability to disasters