Humanitarian Assistance

Despite their heightened vulnerability in disasters, women often serve as first responders and play a central role in the survival and resilience of their communities.

Sector Overview

274 million people needed humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022, a significant increase from 235 million in 2021, already the highest figure in decades. Disasters and crises amplify existing gender inequalities and exacerbate other vulnerabilities experienced by women and girls, and those who are part of the LGBTQI+ community; children; persons with disabilities; Indigenous, ethnic, and religious minorities; and older people. To fulfill the humanitarian mandate of targeting and providing services to those most at risk, humanitarian actors must look to address these multiple, overlapping vulnerabilities in program design and implementation.


Gender Inequality in Emergencies

On average, natural disasters result in the deaths of more women than men and kill women at an earlier age than men. For women and marginalized populations, crises can result in exclusion from lifesaving care and lead to underrepresentation in decision-making processes related to relief and recovery. Girls, especially adolescent girls, experience increased risks of various forms of violence, exploitation, and abuse; their needs are often unmet by interventions designed for children and adults.

Harmful gender norms also adversely affect boys. During humanitarian crises, boys are vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups and to trafficking for the purposes of sex or labor exploitation. If labor needs increase, boys are more likely to be taken out of school.

In emergency settings, women and girls — particularly adolescents — are more likely to experience acute food insecurity. Women and girls represent more than 60 percent of people facing chronic hunger. When food is scarce, women and girls bear the brunt of negative coping mechanisms, including child marriage, sex-selective feeding, child labor, and transactional or survival sex, as well as increased risks of trafficking and sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers.

In addition, unpaid and underpaid care work is further exacerbated during humanitarian emergencies, with increased demands placed on women and girls. Coping mechanisms for care in crises can lead to increasingly vulnerable situations for women and girls, including girls having to leave school to tend to home responsibilities, increased physical and mental burden on women and girls, and higher rates of GBV. Emergencies also tend to disproportionately disrupt women’s livelihoods, with women-led businesses being particularly affected, as women often operate with lower margins, carry unequal care burdens, and experience more tenuous access to resources. 

Women and girls in crisis situations face inequitable or unsafe access to health services, including voluntary reproductive and maternal health care, and water, sanitation, and hygiene support, including menstrual hygiene materials. Reproductive health problems are a leading cause of death and ill-health among women and girls of childbearing age globally. During conflict and natural disasters, access to health services often decreases while reproductive health needs increase. As an essential component of humanitarian health response, addressing reproductive health is critical to saving lives and improving the well-being of these crisis-affected populations.

GBV in Emergencies

GBV is a daily reality in all contexts, but the risk of GBV increases exponentially in times of crisis. Women and girls are at risk of multiple forms of GBV, including intimate partner violence; sexual violence; sexual exploitation and abuse; and child, early, and forced marriage and unions (CEFMU). Rates of intimate partner violence perpetrated against women and girls in conflict-affected settings are consistently higher than rates of non-partner sexual violence, and one in five women in humanitarian settings is likely to experience sexual violence. These forms of GBV consistently and undeniably occur during all emergencies, from the earliest days of a crisis through decades of protracted displacement. However, GBV remains underreported because of exposure to secondary risks, stigma or fear of retaliation, limited access to trusted service providers, impunity for perpetrators, and lack of awareness of the benefits of seeking care. GBV risk mitigation and response are critical interventions in all humanitarian emergencies.

Women’s and Girls’ Leadership in Crisis

Research indicates that women’s engagement in disaster risk reduction strategies often helps focus attention on the needs of vulnerable groups, such as young children and persons with disabilities, in sudden onset emergencies. When women and girls are at the center of humanitarian aid and crisis responses, they can contribute to the assessment, design, implementation, and monitoring of assistance. When they are prioritized in strategies and approaches, their specific needs and potential vulnerabilities are understood and supported.

Promising Approaches

  1. Center women’s and girls’ specific needs and priorities in all humanitarian planning and programming processes through meaningful and systematic consultations with women and girls.

  2. Involve local and national women-led organizations in humanitarian decision-making through participation in the Humanitarian Country Team, clusters, and other coordination platforms.

  3. Create enabling systems for women-led organizations to access funding as directly as possible, including through Country-Based Pooled Funds, to ensure their abilities to deliver lifesaving aid to their communities.

  4. Prioritize the safety of women and girls by funding and programming GBV prevention and response interventions and ensuring the prioritization of protection from sexual exploitation and abuse from the start of all humanitarian responses.

  5. Utilize an intersectional approach to consider how people’s identities and experiences exacerbate marginalization and affect their abilities to respond and recover from crises. Embed relevant programmatic and mitigation measures to address these considerations.
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