International Women’s Day: Not an afterthought

By Melanie Teff
This International Women’s Day, I took a moment to consider the many varied points of view that I heard from and about women during our recent Sudan mission. Their stories are applicable to the situation of many women living in crisis situations around the world.

We heard from remarkable Sudanese women who take great risks with their own personal safety to stand up for women’s rights, and from organizations that are working to support their aims. Yet, we also heard from people who were dismissive of the need to focus on women’s rights during crisis situations, suggesting that in a time of major political upheaval “there are bigger issues to consider” and “we can focus on women’s rights once the crisis is over.” While I understand that many of the humanitarian agencies avoid this topic because of the sensitivities that some programming on women’s rights can cause with governments, and particularly with the government in north Sudan, I would argue that this approach results in poor programming that fails to address the needs of communities.

During our mission my colleague, Jennifer Smith, and I were alerted to some concrete examples of how a focus on women’s rights and protection at the outset would make a positive difference to the humanitarian response.

First, programming to prevent and respond to gender-based violence is seriously underfunded in Sudan, particularly in the transitional areas between north and south Sudan. It is in these areas where women suffered terrible abuses during the two decades of north-south war. There was little documentation of these abuses and very scarce international attention. As a result, survivors of sexual violence in these areas have been neglected, with very few programs to help these women recover and rebuild their lives, or to prevent further gender-based violence. We heard a lot of lip service about the importance of such programs, but little evidence of prioritization of such programming by donors or humanitarian agencies.

Second, the agencies responsible for pre-positioning the essential items to assist people when they have to flee a crisis -- such as food and plastic sheeting -- often forget other items that are lifesaving for women, such as safe birthing and post-rape kits. Southern Sudan has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world. Failing to provide safe birthing kits means that women will die.

And finally, humanitarian agencies must overcome their tendency to make plans for communities without consulting with them, or only consulting with the “leaders.” If just “leaders” are consulted, invariably women’s voices get excluded. We heard from humanitarian agencies about contingency plans they were making for communities in Sudan in case of violence, but that community consultations were not taking place.

Planning to respond to a crisis is very important. But planning to respond with just food and plastic sheeting is not enough. Humanitarian agencies should be helping communities to set up their own early warning systems and protection networks, and women must be key actors in this work as they are central to the functioning of their communities.