Op-Ed: To effectively address sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and emergency settings, we must empower local women’s rights organizations

It is time we recognize the power of the local women’s rights organizations who are best placed to understand the unique needs of their communities

In an era of multiple protracted crises, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) continues to be used with impunity in conflict and emergency settings around the world.

As we mark this year’s 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, CARE Canada is calling for a more systematic approach to supporting and recognizing the roles women and girls play in actively responding to crises.

An estimated 67 million women and girls are in need of humanitarian assistance. Women and girls in emergencies are at heightened risk of gender-based violence and trafficking, unintended pregnancy, unsafe abortion and births, and early and forced marriage. According to UN OCHA, 1 in 5 internally displaced or refugee women living in humanitarian crisis and armed conflict have experienced sexual violence.

In times of crisis, local community structures, including local women’s and girls’ rights actors, are some of the first to respond providing much needed support to victims and survivors. Yet, these groups often struggle for recognition within humanitarian system. Indeed, only 1% of global humanitarian funding is spent on SGBV prevention and response activities.

The case of Hope Restoration South Sudan highlights the very real impacts of funding shortfalls for local women’s organizations and the impacts of de-prioritizing SGBV prevention and response in humanitarian and protracted crises. In South Sudan, gender-based violence has increased as a result of the conflict and rape has been used as a weapon of war. Hope Restoration South Sudan has been providing protection and services to SGBV survivors since 2010. Despite the high levels of need, they have struggled to find adequate and sustainable funding.

Last March, following her statement to the UN Security Council on sexual violence in South Sudan, Hope Restoration South Sudan’s founder, Angelina Nyajima Simon Jial, spoke with CARE Canada staff about how the organization had to close a safe space for SGBV survivors only six months after it opened due to funding being redirected.

A recent study by CARE, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam, and South Sudanese organizations Nile Hope and Titi Foundation found this problem is endemic in South Sudan, with critical gaps in access, quality, and availability of SGBV services, particularly in rural areas.

Why does this happen?

This problem is deeply ingrained within our humanitarian institutions and policy making procedures.

Firstly, women’s rights and personal safety are still not considered priorities in humanitarian planning. Women’s rights are often seen as an optional afterthought – once water, shelter, and food needs have been addressed only then do some in the humanitarian community turn to address women’s rights and safety.

Secondly, our compliance systems still prefer to deal with large, established organizations over those which are locally run as those at the local level may struggle with funding, reporting, and compliance. Rather than assist locally run organizations in these areas, our compliance systems prefer to overlook them in favour of the established players.

Finally, many powerful humanitarian actors are not willing to let go of power and space in humanitarian work to allow local women’s rights organizations a seat at the table.

But without meaningful and sustained investment and opportunities for growth the challenges will remain. One step in the right direction is the Women’s Voice and Leadership Project, funded by Global Affairs Canada. It aims to provide the funding and capacity building grassroots women’s organizations need in order to deliver services, advocate for change, and be heard in the decision making spaces.

As a pre-selected partner, Hope Restoration South Sudan will have access to new funds and capacity building opportunities. This will allow it to build the capacity of staff members, deliver a wide range of interventions and services, empower target populations (especially women), and enable secure access to productive resources for their future.

Additionally, as part of the movement to empower local women’s organizations, CARE, along with more than 40 organizations around the world, released a blueprint earlier this year entitled “Women and girls’ rights and agency in humanitarian action: A life-saving priority.” The call to action of this blueprint can be summarized in three key points:

1) Ensure meaningful participation of women and girls – both at high-level round tables in Geneva and New York, as well as at cluster meetings in crisis-affected countries like South Sudan.

2) Hold humanitarian agencies accountable to work with women’s and girls’ rights actors by including through quantitative and qualitative reporting.

3) Mobilize long-term, predictable funding for local women and girls’ rights actors – because these organizations alone are capable of putting women at centre of conversation before the response even begins. And they will still be there when everyone else has left.

While they face many challenges, women like Angelina Nyajima Simon Jial who are on the front lines of humanitarian crises also embody strength, perseverance, and resilience – acting as first responders and agents of change with the knowledge and the skill to design more effective and responsive humanitarian action. They provide ongoing, long-term services like social support and case management, which they can adapt or initiate when a crisis emerges. In many cases, women and girls are the best representatives of their needs in humanitarian crises. It is time that their specific needs and priorities are resourced and placed at the centre of every humanitarian response.