Davos Agenda

Why women’s rights must be at the heart of crisis response

Our collective failure to uphold women’s rights means that we emerge from each crisis a step further away from gender equality.  Pictured here: A man walks past a painting on the wall of the former embassy for women's affairs in Kabul, Afghanistan, January 3, 2022.

Our collective failure to uphold women’s rights means that we emerge from each crisis a step further away from gender equality. Image: REUTERS/Ali Khara

Natalia Kanem
Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
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Davos Agenda

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  • Millions of women in crisis settings live in danger, and for those fleeing conflict zones, the threat of gender-based violence looms large.
  • In times of crisis, the plight of women and girls is made worse by deep and long-standing inequalities.
  • Women and women-led groups understand the unique needs of women and families in crisis situations and should be full and equal participants in all recovery, resilience and peacebuilding efforts.

From women giving birth in bomb shelters to maternity hospitals under siege and pregnant women being forced to flee, harrowing images from Ukraine illustrate the vulnerabilities of women caught in conflict.

As the world looks on in dismay at events in Ukraine, let us remember the countless other scenes of such suffering playing out across the globe – suffering that predominantly has a female face.

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Women’s rights deserve a distinct spot in crisis response

Millions of women in crisis settings live in danger. They face daily risks to their health and safety and limited access to medical care and social services. For pregnant women lacking essential reproductive and maternal health care, childbirth can end in tragedy; and, in a cruel twist of fate, robbed of their agency at all levels, women’s risk of unintended pregnancy is drastically increased at the moment it is most threatening.

For those fleeing conflict zones, the threat of gender-based violence looms large. Intimate partner violence, sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment are dim realities for many women on the move, as is the prospect of being targeted by sex traffickers. Rape is also one of the ugly realities of war, as devastating as any bullet or bomb.

In times of crisis, the plight of women and girls is made worse by deep and long-standing inequalities. Despite their critical roles within communities and as first responders, women are kept away from leadership roles in peacebuilding processes and continue to be excluded from rooms where decisions about their needs are taken.

With a majority of male mediators in formal negotiations and peace processes, women’s rights are often neglected.
With a majority of male mediators in formal negotiations and peace processes, women’s rights are often neglected. Image: UN Women

Our collective failure to uphold women’s rights means that we emerge from each crisis a step further away from gender equality. As the world faces multiple and overlapping crises and record-high levels of displacement, we must translate humanitarian commitments into action and ensure that women and girls are at the centre of all crisis and disaster responses.

When I visited a refugee centre in Moldova, I met Ukrainian women who had fled with just what they could carry. I heard heartbreaking stories of lives upended overnight. Getting a refill of contraceptive pills was the last thing on their minds and rightly so. It is not on the minds of decision-makers responding to humanitarian crises either, yet, it should be.

Early and sustained engagement with women and women-led groups must be a priority when crisis strikes, not an afterthought. They understand the local context and the unique needs of women and families and should be full and equal participants in all recovery, resilience and peacebuilding efforts. Governments must also provide adequate, dedicated funding to protect the safety and dignity of women and girls in their time of greatest need.

We have a choice: we can either continue down the current path where women’s gains continue to unravel or stay faithful to implementing international commitments that respect their agency and uphold their fundamental rights. If we want to shape a more peaceful, just and resilient future, we cannot abandon or exclude women and girls.

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaGender InequalityInternational Security
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