WHAT WILL PROTECT GIRLS AND WOMEN ON THE RUN?
A 10-point checklist to ensure girls’ and women’s safety in emergency settings
This time, the anguish illuminating the faces of children, their mothers, and grandmothers fleeing their homes, villages, and towns was completely avoidable. Acting alone, a reckless American president has, with a tweet, triggered the military invasion of northeastern Syria by the strongman Turkish president, a vicious ongoing criminal assault on innocent civilians there, the flight into neighboring states of some 200,000 Kurdish, Yezidi, and Syrian refugees to-date, with countless more on the way.
The gruesome execution of Kurdish human rights defender Hevrin Khalaf, a 35-year-old female civil engineer and Secretary-General of the Future Syria Party, videotaped by her gloating Turkish-backed Syrian Arab assassins, was among the first of many atrocities, to be followed ever since by near-daily reported disappearances, rapes, and kidnappings. The forced evacuation of Kurds from the 30-kilometer border area, ignominiously dubbed a “safe zone” where the Turkish president has threatened to resettle millions of Syrian refugees now harbored in Turkey, has already displaced countless women and families, placing them at incalculable risk, and may well unleash a humanitarian catastrophe and violate a cornerstone of international refugee law.
This is only the most recent manufactured crisis to put women and children at great risk. Ongoing conflict-engendered travesties in recent months include the trafficking, forced marriage, and other abuses of the 700,000+ Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh, more than half of them women and children, following their terroristic expulsion by the criminal military-spearheaded government in Myanmar; the brutal cartel-plus-failed-government-driven flight northward of countless Central American women and families, most forced from their homes by brutal domestic and gang violence and facing abuse, exploitation, kidnapping, gang-rape in their search for safety; and the four million Venezuelans and counting who have fled their country‘s cruel meltdown at the hand yet another ruthless leader, flooding into other Latin American and Central American countries, where the humanitarian response has been disastrously late and underfunded.
The manmade climate crisis, too, has resulted in increasingly destructive natural disasters that have triggered life-threatening humanitarian emergencies. Whole communities have been uprooted and traumatized, their residents forced to flee severe drought in southern India, storms and flooding in central Mozambique and the Bahamas, and fires across California, to cite just a few venues hit hard by record climate-related events across the globe within the past year.
It’s important to take literally the above-mentioned words “man-ufactured” and “manmade — as in, fabricated or made by men. With respect to the climate emergency, male-led multinationals and nationalist governments have assumed a defiant head-in-the-sand posture, distorting and burying facts and scientific findings to prioritize profits over the very survival of their consumers and constituents. The harm done is unimaginable, with lifelong impacts far beyond any costing; yet the chance of any meaningful accountability is slim-to-none.
And the harm is done to women. Whether fleeing brutal conflict, a climate-driven emergency, or natural disaster, women and children are by far the most vulnerable, with a well-documented increase in incidence of gender-based violence, sexual assault, and homicide that correlates to displacement and the accompanying chaos.
The displacement itself, in tandem with witnessing violence and trauma and enduring threats to one’s life, the loss or threatened loss of loved ones and home, and, with those losses, the breakdown of community and of any sense of reliable social cohesion, all foster mental anguish, post-traumatic stress, and depression among women, in contexts ill-equipped to provide a safe haven or enable them to begin the long and painful process of healing.
So what must be done to protect girls and women in humanitarian settings?
Whatever the emergency, those leading the humanitarian response must keep in mind, put in place, and regularly monitor the implementation, staffing, and maintenance of the following 10 critical elements needed to protect girls and women — including the most vulnerable and marginalized girls and women, such as pregnant, lactating, elderly, and disabled women, single women with children, and those who identify as LGBTQ:
1. Safe and adequate shelter, gender-segregated water points, latrines, and bathing facilities;
2. Safe and adequate food and nutrition support;
3. Quality health care, including sexual and reproductive health care, lactation support, post-natal care, family planning, and the availability of mental health counseling;
4. Safe gathering spaces and freedom of movement;
5. Care taken toward the prevention of gender-based violence, including the training of staff, community leaders, boys and men, and staffed, gender-segregated safe havens for those fearing domestic or other violence;
6. Skills and language training that is attuned to local job opportunities and labor markets;
7. Childcare, to enable that skills training and work;
8. Safe transport to these gathering places and to the local health care delivery, job-training, child care, and job placement sites;
9. Opportunities to engage in decision-making for one’s family, including having some say and control over the disposition of family assets;
10. Opportunities for women to serve both as the co-creators, decision-makers, and implementors of human rights-based humanitarian actions that are gender-responsive and that will ensure that girls and women — especially the most marginalized and vulnerable — can access the relief, safety, services, and information they need, to look out for their families and to keep them safe. and vital economic actors.
This 10-point gender-equitable checklist is not rocket science; nor is it new. Every humanitarian emergency going back at least to World War II has seen its share of sexual violence and the dearth of resources allocated for women and girls, but for the most part, lessons learned the hard way have not been transmitted from crisis to crisis or practitioner to practitioner. Back in 2006, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published a Gender Handbook in Humanitarian Action, followed by a Gender Equality Policy Statement in 2008 and an enhanced Policy on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls in Humanitarian Action, endorsed in 2017 by the IASC, together with an accompanying Accountability Framework that places gender equity at the very center of humanitarian action, with consequences for implementing agencies that fail to do so.
Yet despite such guidelines, unacceptable levels of abuse, criminality, and trauma persist during complex emergencies, with vulnerable women and girls the most severely affected.
But where girls and women are safe, everyone is safe. The time has come to change the script and truly prioritize women and girls. If we can keep faith with this brief life-saving checklist, women and girls really will be at the center of humanitarian action — both as those held uppermost in the minds and hearts of all policymakers and humanitarian actors, and as the policymakers and actors themselves.