"The Realities of Women Humanitarians"

By Jessika Seekatz, on behalf of the Arab Institute for Women,
and Mendy Marsh, on behalf of VOICE

Every year, the United Nations and the aid sector at large celebrates World Humanitarian Day, a day designated to pay tribute to those who dedicate their lives to the service of others. In 2019, World Humanitarian Day honored women humanitarians, the so-called “unsung heroes who are on the frontlines.” The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) touted the “unparalleled uniqueness” of women humanitarians, saying they add to the “global momentum of female strength, power and perseverance.”

Undoubtedly worthy praise. And yet, praise rings hollow without substantive change to a system that discriminates against and exploits those very women humanitarians it praises. In the summer of 2019, an open-ended question was posted on a Facebook group for women in the aid sector, asking what challenges women faced in their work in the field. Responses were overwhelming and disturbing. 

After being inundated with responses, a group of women – all of whom were either current or former humanitarian workers, or senior gender experts with more than a decade’s worth of experience in these fields – decided to try to collect this data in a more systematic way, with the aim to produce a report that documented the realities of working in the humanitarian sector as a woman. Together, they drafted a survey, which was later circulated across various media platforms, including the platforms of the Arab Institute for Women (AiW) and VOICE. 
Within five days, 600 people had responded. It was clear that women were eager to share their stories. Of the 600 women surveyed, 41% said they experienced sexual harassment in the field. This has long been a problem in the humanitarian sector, one that surfaced prominently with the reports of Oxfam staffers’ abuse of Haitian women in the response to the 2010 earthquake. These incidents were investigated and reported by the Charity Commission. In 2018, around the The Realities of Women Humanitarians beginning of the #MeToo movement, another wave of sexual assault and misconduct accusations became public against Oxfam and Save the Children. This resulted in a mass call from those inside humanitarian industries for transformation, justice, and accountability, which was often referred to as #Aidtoo.
While we wish we had the time and space to write about the many other important issues facing women humanitarian workers – specifically issues related to racism and discrimination against women living with disabilities – we hope that the findings of our report trigger an immediate response from other organizations and researchers in the humanitarian sector to develop our findings further, and to work toward producing more knowledge on these other forms of oppression and discrimination for the betterment of the field. It is our hope that this information can act as a meaningful catalyst The Realities of Women Humanitarians 6 for discussion on World Humanitarian Day 2020, and can encourage tangible action towards a more equitable aid sector.
Click here to read the full paper: https://aiw.lau.edu.lb/images/Aqlam2020-new.pdf
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