Forum Institutional

Why we need more female voices while addressing humanitarian crises

humanitarian crises; women and girls; refugees

Humanitarian crises often disproportionately affect women and girls by affecting access to health care and education, increasing gender-based violence. Image: Unsplash/ @ninnojackjr

Laura Gillespie
Project Fellow – Women’s Health Initiative, World Economic Forum Geneva, Senior Director, Global Health Advocacy, Hologic
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Forum Institutional?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Women's Health is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Women's Health

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • There has been a sharp rise in the need for humanitarian aid due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with other challenges such as conflict and climate change.
  • Crises tend to disproportionately affect women and girls due to the impact on health care, education and greater gender-based violence.
  • By combining gender-informed approaches with public-private partnerships, it is possible to better address the impact of humanitarian crises on women and girls.

More people around the world are facing humanitarian crises than ever before. An estimated 274 million people will need humanitarian aid in 2022, according to The United Nations Office for Coordination in Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). While challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, violent conflicts, forced displacement and climate change affect humanity on a widespread scale, they disproportionately impact the most vulnerable, especially women and girls. They also highlight and compound existing gender health inequalities.

Have you read?

Humanitarian crises over the past two years have created higher barriers for women and girls to receive necessary health care, gender-based violence has risen and educational opportunities have decreased. As a result, the world needs humanitarian action that is directly informed by women and girls and leverages the power of public-private partnerships. Such action is vital because women form the backbone of families, communities and economies worldwide.

Humanitarian crises around the world

The significant rise in the need for humanitarian aid is in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic stands alone as a crisis, it also exacerbates co-existing crises.

Some of the most severe humanitarian crises exist in Africa, the Middle East and South America:

  • There is conflict in Northern Ethiopia while the Horn of Africa deals with food insecurity and malnutrition from a historically long drought and desert locust infestation.
  • Refugees flock to Sudan, which is also suffering the impacts of flood and famine, in addition to political insecurity.
  • Drought conditions are also affecting Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria. In addition, these countries struggle with economic crisis, political instability and conflict. Food insecurity in Afghanistan is also on the brink of famine.
  • The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo have been living with long-term, complex crises. These include food insecurity, violent conflict and repeated epidemics, in addition to COVID-19. As a result, the country is experiencing mass forced displacement.
  • More than 20% of Venezuelans – nearly 6 million people – have experienced forced displacement because of violence and economic and food instability.
  • We have also watched in real time as a humanitarian crisis has developed in the Ukraine, causing forced displacement, a health crisis and food and economic instability. Almost 13 million Ukrainians have been forced to leave their homes due to the invasion of the country earlier this year.

The disruption of health care services

Women and girls around the world face barriers to accessing quality health care even in the absence of a humanitarian crisis. This is especially true of those living in rural and low-income areas. The COVID-19 pandemic and other humanitarian crises greatly increase those barriers.

One barrier is the scarcity of quality health care services. According to OCHA, mothers and children are most at risk where there are diminishing health care services. The World Health Organization reports that in 2021 approximately 90% of countries had disruptions to basic health services. Specifically, the International Rescue Committee expects crises to cause over 90% of Afghanistan’s health clinics to close.

Humanitarian crises interrupt the provision and usage of sexual and reproductive health care and information leaving women and girls vulnerable, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). It has found that maternal deaths in 35 countries facing humanitarian crisis or fragile conditions represent around 61% of all maternal deaths globally. This means that maternal mortality in these countries was 1.9 times higher than the global estimate.


The rise of gender-based violence

Gender-based violence is referred to as a “shadow pandemic” – most recently in relation to its increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. While people were confined to their homes, preventive, protective and responsive services were discontinued or more difficult to use.

This is shadow pandemic also occurs during other humanitarian crises. Specifically, an increase of gender-based violence has been noted during natural disasters and it is also used as a weapon of war.

The education of girls and young women

When schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic and children and young adults were sent home to isolate, education advocates were concerned about the impact on girls’ health and well-being. School provides a safe and healthy environment for many children. Education is also an important element in women’s and girls’ economic empowerment, autonomy and even long-term health.

There was also concern about how many girls would return to school after lockdowns. According to OCHA, 127 million children of primary and secondary age in crisis-impacted areas were not attending school before the pandemic caused schools to close. UNICEF estimates that boys are more likely to return to school across Eastern and Southern Africa following the worst of COVID-19 – while 11 million girls may never return to school according to UNESCO. More data needs to be collected now that most countries have reopened schools.


How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

How to aid recovery

Humanitarian action is increasingly led and informed by the voices of women and girls. As more women and girls experience a humanitarian crisis and the equality gap widens, it is imperative that this gender-informed approach continues to grow in order to change the gender dynamic, policies, and the distribution of resources. This also helps ensure that women are protected and their leadership is supported.

Finally, including public-private partnerships in recovery efforts brings the combination of cross-sectoral knowledge, expertise and resources. The UN recognises the power of private sector engagement in humanitarian efforts. Combining gender-informed approaches with public-private partnerships brings together two powerful models to tackle the impact of humanitarian crises.

Healthy women and girls support the well-being and productivity of their families, communities and countries. This causes a ripple effect that benefits all.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum