A Call for Change

Photo By: Sylvain Liechti (UN)

In October 2013, at a high-level event tucked away in a London-based location, heads of state, ministers, and senior leaders from around the world met to collectively commit to ending violence against women and girls in emergencies.  Through a Call to Action, mobilizing various actors to make individual commitments to address this violence, the world’s leaders, international organizations like UNFPA and OCHA, and international NGOs decided to break the stalemate and start mobilizing new ways to address the problem. 

We could call this an unprecedented event – a move towards fundamental changes in policies and programming.  A transformation in the mindsets of leaders towards a common vision and approach to prioritize women and girls in emergencies.  A moment where any strategic response includes women and girls as a top priority. But we would be wrong.  This is not the first time such attention has been given to violence against women and girls, nor will it be the last.

The truth is that world leaders, donors, UN, and NGOs still struggle with how to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls. We are no closer than we were in 1981 when prominent leaders introduced international policies like the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) or the 2006 Brussels Call to Action to address Sexual Violence in Conflict.  Every year we have a report by the UN Secretary-General on progress made to address Sexual Violence in Conflict.  And yet, year after year, the reports continue to document the same thing: violence continues and the challenges for us to respond seem to swell with each new crisis, even as we face limited funding pools, few qualified staff, and fundamental principles of safety and dignity in humanitarian response going unnoticed or ignored.

In 2014, the U.S. Government took the reins from the UK to help steer the global Call to Action in the hope that, through U.S. leadership, we would move a step closer to understanding what is needed to stop the violence and mitigate its effects.  One year after the Call to Action was launched, we sit together again to review our progress and collective action.  Our inclination will be to pat ourselves on the back for taking steps to move our respective commitments forward. We will shake hands with our colleagues with praises of a “job well done.” 

But really, what have we done? Can we honestly say we can see change? Can we measure our collective impact in terms of actual reduced risk to women and girls who still today are caught in the turmoil of conflicts and disasters?

It is not enough to make our siloed commitments in a vacuum. Coming together in a room to discuss our progress and agree our next steps means nothing if we don’t understand the necessary pieces required to shift commitments from a mere collection of activities to a fundamental change in our understanding in what it takes to protect women and girls in emergencies. 

Serious discussions need to untangle the web of constraints that continue to keep us stuck in the status quo. Coordination and collaboration are not just buzz words, but are essential aspects of action that must come with a high level of competency and experience. The analysis of risks and empowerment strategies by women and girls themselves must be strengthened and better articulated.  Strategic objectives must be better defined in terms of tangible and measurable reduction in risk experienced by women and girls. And we need a common framework to hold everyone accountable for actual results.

If we are serious about addressing violence against women and girls in emergencies, why in the current four Level 3 emergency responses is there so little evidence that women and girls have been prioritized?  What does prioritizing women and girls look like in the first 72 hours of an emergency response when food is being delivered, when tents are going up, and when trucks roar through with water, blankets and school kits? Why can’t we articulate and demonstrate a response where women and girls, and the violence they are subject to, are our priority?

A collective vision is essential, but not enough in itself.  Strategic action underpinning this vision must be informed by a new approach to address violence against women and girls. This approach needs to maximize and build our collective capacity as humanitarian actors, ensure individual organizations are accountable for the prioritization of women and girls, insist that States reject continued impunity for violence against women and girls, and guarantee strong and unwavering leadership until the job is done.

This requires a true transformation in thinking from how we prioritize and deliver humanitarian aid to action that translates into policy and funding priorities. Specifically:

  1. The Call to Action should be less focused on individual agencies’ commitments, as these are self-generated, self-defined and self-monitored.
  1. Collectively, we must undertake the necessary research, analysis and working sessions with technical experts to create a shared vision for what it will take to mitigate and respond to GBV in emergencies.
  1. A more detailed Framework must be developed to produce the desired levels of change that show (a) what commitments are needed to mitigate risks to women and girls from the earliest phases of a crisis, and (b) the provision of safe and comprehensive services for those affected by GBV.

A Call to Action to address violence against women and girls in emergencies would perhaps be better served if it was a Call for Change – a necessary first step in leadership if we are to see action and commitments materialize into protection and empowerment of the women and girls we say we wish to prioritize.

A Call to Action: Additional Resources