Humanitarian Action

How amplifying women's voices could boost humanitarian and development aid efforts

Woman stands in a rice field in Vietnam, forboding clouds in the background; humanitarian relief, development aid.

Turning up the volume of women's voices could help communities across the world shape development and humanitarian relief based on their needs. Image: Pexels/Quang Nguyen Vinh

Kalkidan Lakew Yihun
Programme Coordinator, Women (in VSLAs) Respond, CARE USA
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Humanitarian Action

  • Food insecurity, water shortages, climate extremes, conflict and economic shock are affecting people around the world.
  • The numbers of those in need of humanitarian relief have risen significantly in recent years but the gap between finance and resources currently stands at a record $43 billion.
  • Helping women voice the concerns and needs of their communities means the relief that is available can be better directed to the people and communities that need it most.

The percentage of people in need across the world has doubled since 2020, with one out of every 23 people now needing some form of humanitarian relief. Conflict, climate extremes and economic shocks all contributed to the more than 333 million people facing food insecurity in 2023 — a 200 million person increase from pre-COVID levels.

These figures are also backed up by the stories women have shared with CARE in our latest Women Respond survey. Women Respond started as a listening effort during the pandemic to understand the impact of COVID on women and how they were responding to the pandemic.

We survey members of Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), self-managed community groups, who meet regularly to save their money, access small loans, and obtain emergency insurance. VSLAs can also support members to meet their most immediate needs, and support their communities, particularly during crises.

Our latest survey of 3,822 (85% women) VSLA members in Burundi, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger and Vietnam found that support for women is dwindling across the board, whether it’s coming from the aid sector, funders or governments. UN data shows the gap between financial requirements and resources currently stands at a record $43 billion.

This gap will have disastrous consequences for people facing crises, but our research shows that women are often well-placed to give voice to those in need so the humanitarian relief that is available can be directed quickly and efficiently.

Women often take incredible actions to support their communities, showing remarkable leadership during crises, despite challenges. For example, amid a war that broke out in 2020 in the Segou region of Mali, local VSLA chair Diawara Djeneba Arama told us they supported hundreds of local families in crisis. “Thanks to our groups, distressed families who had lost everything and fled the conflict now have access to food,” she said. “We didn’t wait; we made sure we provided support right away. If we had waited, some of these displaced people would not have survived.”

Listening to women and putting their voices central to crisis response efforts helps change the perception of women from being passive recipients of aid, to being relief agents for households and communities in crisis.

So what have the women that participated in our latest Women Respond survey told us about the challenges their communities face today?

Facing food insecurity and household poverty

Food insecurity continues to have the greatest impact on livelihoods, according to 60% of the women we interviewed. Lack of access to clean water is the second biggest crisis issue, affecting 40%.

These women also told us that price inflation, mostly related to food, is causing household poverty. For some, this means adopting negative coping mechanisms such as eating less food or selling their belongings. It also limits their ability to save, endangering an important safety net for these women. Indeed, 41% are using their savings to provide for their families right now.

Such stressors can also lead to household tension and domestic violence. Unfortunately, support for gender-based violence survivors and mental health care can be nearly non-existent in some regions, with local health centres barely able to provide even basic services.

We didn’t wait, we made sure we provided support right away. If we had waited, some of these displaced people would have not survived.

Diawara Djeneba Arama, VSLA chair, Segou, Mali

But even as household incomes deteriorate, women are not asking for aid or waiting around for humanitarian relief. Our survey shows they want practical solutions to help improve their livelihoods, such as access to finance, better farming processes and water infrastructure. More than half (52%) of the women we interviewed have already attempted to diversfy their incomes in the face of financial challenges.

Women in VSLAs are also reaching out to help their communities. In Niger, Mariama Ali, the secretary general of her local VSLA, told us that her group developed a collective garden to help members improve their income, food, and nutrition. In Ethiopia, another VSLA member, Zenanesh, explained that her group is working in the community to prevent forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Image of a women in red, smiling, standing in a field.
Mariama Ali, president of the Niya da Kokari VLSA group, Tahoua-Niger. Image: CARE Niger

Amplifying women’s voices

For the first time, the most recent Women Respond survey included a question on what women would like to see CARE pushing government actors to do for them. Food security topped the advocacy agenda in all seven countries. Women also told us that their earnings are vital to their families’ survival, and so creating income generating opportunities was the second-highest priority for action at scale identified by our survey.

CARE’s advocacy teams are already focused on influencing the US government, global donors and country governments about these two areas. We have also embedded Women Respond into our routine monitoring of VSLAs so that we can actively respond to women and develop the support that they want and need on an ongoing basis.

But we are now going one step further by giving the data we collect back to these women so they can use it to support their own actions. And they are: Women are going on local radio and attending meetings with local government to discuss these issues, presenting this data to the leaders in their communities. They are not just voicing their needs, they are also taking action to change things for the better in their communities. This is advocacy at its best.

Have you read?

Elevating the role and profile of women in crisis will ultimately help the development community better understand their role, needs and priorities, and the role of VSLAs in building the long-term resilience of households and communities. I encourage those who are actively collecting data from women to please share it. Crises need a quick response. The power of our collective data is already changing lives.

Humanitarian and development programming, and the funding for it, needs to be flexible. We need to centre responses on women’s voices, while shifting resources to address their specific needs. Women are speaking, and we need to turn up the volume on their voices so the world can hear them.

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Related topics:
Humanitarian ActionDevelopment FinanceEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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