Feminist humanitarian action is needed now more than ever

27 May 2021

Find out more about women's leadership in crises and why it's so crucial right now.

Lucina, in the largest market place in the region of Jacmel - Cap Rouge, promoting safe hygiene practices during the Covid-19 sanitary health alert. Photo: ActionAid

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the World Humanitarian Summit, where countries agreed to take steps to make the humanitarian system more effective – by shifting power and resources to organisations that do the best job getting aid to those who need it most. 

And yet, over this last year, the Covid-19 crisis has shone a light on the multitude of risks faced by women in times of crisis.

This includes the wave of violence faced by women and girls, the increase in unpaid care as a result of school disruption and closure, and the lack of protection for women whose jobs have been most at risk.  

But the crisis has also highlighted the importance of women’s role as ‘first responders’ in emergencies.

All over the world, women have been leading the response to Covid-19 in their communities.  

Women’s leadership in crisis works

At ActionAid, we’ve seen time and time again the value of women’s leadership in crisis.

Women-led and women’s rights organisations understand best the specific needs of women and girls. They know that, in crisis, services that prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and sexual health services, aren’t just important – they are life-saving.  

Local, women-led responses are rooted in their communities, along with the local understanding, networks and connections to respond rapidly to crisis.

Women-led responses have also been invaluable in challenging entrenched inequality and harmful stereotypes.

For example, following women-led responses to Cyclone Mahasen in 2013 in Bangladesh, women reported a positive shift in how their opinions were valued, and they considered that to be a significant change in their community.

And today, in response to Covid-19, ActionAid continues to demonstrate how women-led and women’s rights organisation can be a powerful force in infectious disease control.

They know the best ways of communicating health messages to their communities. This means they can lead an effective and inclusive response to stopping the spread of disease, increasing the adoption of healthy behaviours based on accessible information. 

When women lead in crisis, the response is effective, fair and with long-term benefits.

This is why, for decades, ActionAid has supported women’s leadership in crisis. We know that its not just the right thing to do, but it works.  

Women's roles are undervalued and excluded 

But what the Covid-19 pandemic has also exposed is that women’s leadership continues to be undervalued and overlooked.

Despite women and their organisations being at the frontlines of humanitarian responses, women and girls are often excluded from the decision-making processes that impact their lives.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the UK Government has provided funding to tackle the pandemic in the Global South. But not enough of this is reaching the women-led organisations on the ground, who need it to fund their vital work. 

We must listen to and learn from women's rights organisations

There is a critical need to recognise and prioritise the needs of women and girls, and the leadership role that women play as a means to truly shift power, resources and influence to local women-led responses.

This means working with women, and their organisations. 

Or it means working through networks such as the Feminist Humanitarian Network, which brings together a collective of women leaders, including women's rights organisations in the Global South, and is committed to a transformed humanitarian system that promotes a feminist humanitarian agenda.

Members of the Feminist Humanitarian Network have led research and launched a set of reports showcasing their experiences in responding to Covid-19 - the challenges they faced, and the feminist solutions they used to overcome them - incluuding where women's rights organisations have persevered through these challenges, using creative approaches to ensure that those they work with haven’t been left behind.

It is an opportunity for us to listen to, learn from and recognise the leadership of women's rights organisations in humanitarian action. 

Learn more about women's leadership in humanitarian action

Women's leadership is needed now more than ever.

Learn more about women's leadership - and why it works - or give a gift today to support women and girls who are leading their communities through the climate crisis.