×

Search form

Remarks

“Next steps in the drive for gender equality in crisis settings: How a feminist approach can help” - Speech by The Rt Hon David Miliband President and CEO, International Rescue Committee

Georgetown University Institute for Women, Peace and Security

Last updated 

I am enormously grateful to Madeleine Albright, Melanne Verveer and the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security for their partnership in today’s event, and to you all for being here. Madeleine and Melanne have long been teachers of mine, and I am delighted to share some of the lessons they, and others, taught me.

I hope you will understand if I say the most important participants in today’s event live a long way from here. I am thinking of the women and girls in the forty fragile and conflict states where IRC works. They are the reason we are here today.

One in five women in these settings will experience sexual violence by someone other than their partner. In South Sudan our research shows 73% of women who have had a partner have experienced intimate partner violence. Child marriage rates in Syria are four times higher than before the civil war began, and in Niger almost 75% of girls are married before the age of 18. 60% of maternal mortality deaths take place in conflict or displacement settings. In emergency settings, every day, over 500 women and girls die during pregnancy or childbirth.

Last week, a report by Equal Measures showed that not a single country is on track to achieve gender equality by 2030 – the target date for conclusion of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Fragile and conflict states are furthest behind. And most important for our discussion today, women and girls in those countries – places like Chad, Yemen and Pakistan – are falling the furthest behind on all the SDG indicators. They are suffering a double disadvantage – because of where they live and because of their gender.

That’s bad enough. To compound the problem, the world is looking the other way. The research we are publishing today with the think tank Voice shows that at the moment only 0.12% of humanitarian funding goes to funding of Gender Based Violence programs, and two-thirds of GBV funding requests embedded in UN Humanitarian Response Plans from 2016 to 2018 went unmet.

More funding is urgent and vital, but the main purpose of today is not to reiterate the wholly justified calls for that funding. It is about a change of approach within IRC to how we think about the drivers of injustice and inequality for these women and girls, and how we play our part in tackling those injustices and inequalities. We are proud of our programs. But they don’t go far enough, deep enough or broad enough, to effect the change that we want to see. To do that we need to do more, but we also need to do different.

We address this challenge with the benefit of a long history of work to address the needs of women and girls, and more recently avowedly to advance gender equality.

In the 1990s our pioneering programs to tackle gender-based violence set a gold standard for research and for impact. We showed that even after the most brutal assaults, survivors of sexual violence living in some of the most violent parts of the world could rebuild their lives. The work we do to implement those programs remains vitally important today. Just last month in the Democratic Republic of Congo I was told by the leader of an inspirational group of forty women who we have been supporting outside Goma that until she was introduced to IRC programs, she did not know the word or concept of rape. It was so common that it was not named.

Then the organisation broadened its focus from GBV to Women’s Protection and Empowerment. We wanted to prevent violence against women and girls as much as treat it. And we came to understand through our programs that when economic empowerment of women was added to specific social programs targeted at them, there was a double dividend. We’ve developed our economic interventions, for example targeting business development opportunities at women, for that reason. We need more commitment from donors to programs and research – like the DFID What Works efforts – to add to the toolbox.

When I joined IRC five years ago I was struck that a downside of our progress in this area was that there was an assumption in too many parts of the organisation that protection and empowerment of women and girls was the job of the Women’s Protection and Empowerment team, not the job of every team. So in our strategic plan launched in January 2015, we said that across every one of the five outcome areas that are the foundation of our work, narrowing the gender gap was an essential test of success. We created a Gender Equality Unit and regional gender advisors to take this forward. We also recognised that we would never be able to deliver on our commitment to narrowing the gender gap in our programs unless we got our own house in order.

On all these fronts there's been some good progress in the last 53 months. We’ve embedded gender advisors across our programming units in the U.S. and around the world, in addition to training 222 gender equality champions, launching Women @ Work groups to help identify gaps in our support for female staff, training 1,750 staff on core gender equality practices, and incorporating anti-sexual harassment training into IRC Way Day staff training and staff on-boarding processes. We’ve developed tools to integrate gender analysis across our program cycle, including the measurement of the gender-sensitivity of program proposals. We have also rewritten job descriptions to encourage more women applicants, piloted blind CV reviews to reduce gender bias in hiring, and developed greater gender disaggregation for statistics on staff. I am also encouraged by the wide-ranging response to our Raise Concerns campaign, encouraging staff to speak up on a range of safeguarding issues.

We work in some of the toughest places to promote gender equality. But progress is possible. For example, in Afghanistan conscious and deliberate efforts have more than doubled our female staffing (including all positions) over the past two years, to 33%. Not yet parity but progress. In Herat province, we are at 50%. And in senior management positions we have four women and three men, including an Afghan woman.

The purpose of this speech, however, is not to ask you to congratulate us. It is to say that that we cannot content ourselves with just carrying on as we are. We have concluded that we need a deeper level of organisational change, and sectoral change, to deliver the fundamental shift in life chances that we seek for the women and girls who are our clients. The essence of that shift is to take to a new level the way we address issues of power, and especially the imbalance of power between men and women, in our own organisation, in our sector, and in the communities in which we work.

When young girls are sold off for early marriage to provide finance for a family, that reflects structures of power. When male nurses and doctors hired by NGOs fail to give confidence to female patients, that reflects structures of power. When women and girls displaced by violence complain year after year that it’s not safe for them to go to the bathroom because there’s not enough lighting in the refugee camp, the absence of that lighting reflects structures of power and so does the refusal to listen to them. And of course, to state the obvious, when perpetrators of rape and violence are not held accountable, that reflects inequalities of power. This is what a feminist perspective challenges us to think about.

The idea of a “feminist” approach to humanitarian policy and practice is not about labelling. It is about an understanding that the additional inequalities and insecurities faced by women and girls in humanitarian settings are not just accidental by-products of the trauma inherent in such situations. They are symptoms of the inequalities of power between men and women in those situations – in their families, in their communities, and in their relationship with a humanitarian sector that itself reflects inequalities of power between men and women and whose excesses in sexual exploitation and abuse are the most appalling reflection of that. The challenge laid down by feminist thinking is to take seriously those inequalities of power as drivers of violence or injustice that are themselves symptoms of deeper malaise.

The statistics show women and girls doubly disadvantaged where we work. Our approach should be to try and create a double dividend: tackle the symptoms of disadvantage, but also address the power imbalances that generate them. When I met women enrolled in our business entrepreneurship class in Eastern Mosul last year, I saw this in action. Having lived under ISIS (Daesh), they were determined not just to achieve better economic outcomes, but also to play a different role in their families with the new power they were developing. They told me: “We are never going back to the way it was before”.

We are spurred in this approach by some governments which have vaulted over our efforts and committed themselves to a feminist foreign policy and a feminist aid policy. Sweden, which pioneered the first feminist foreign policy in 2014, redoubled the country’s commitment to expanding the rights of women around the world, the representation of women in the Swedish Foreign Service, and the resources available to advance gender equality. Canada, which launched a Feminist International Assistance Policy in 2017, pledged that 95% of Canadian aid would focus on gender equality and empowerment by 2022, and has just announced a $300 million Gender Equality Fund. France, which announced a feminist foreign policy this March, has committed to a €700 million per year fund specifically to target gender equality.

To go the next step, we think it is necessary to engage more systematically with the questions of power that are raised by feminist thinking. The evidence before our eyes, from our staff and clients in the places where we work, is that we will not be successful in delivering for our female clients until we address the inequalities of power they face, and to do that we need to address inequalities of power within our own organisation.

Put another way, we cannot be a truly successful humanitarian organisation, defined by the outcomes achieved by and for our beneficiaries, until we are a feminist organisation, with equality between our staff, opportunities and barriers for them never defined by their gender, and understanding of inequalities of power and what needs to be done to overcome them driving our programs externally.

Let me give some indication of our thinking about the next steps to make our commitment practical.

In our own organisation we want to set a new standard for presence of women in our senior management teams, informed by programs such as our Women at Work groups, as part of a wider drive to promote gender equality. To hold ourselves accountable, we have developed a Gender Equality Scorecard, which is publicly available online, with 16 metrics that measure our progress toward attracting and retaining female staff, upholding values of gender equality, and establishing a culture of respect and support for female staff and beneficiaries. Just as important as developing a scorecard with metrics for success, every department and every leader at IRC has responsibility for achieving these targets, not just the Gender Equality Unit. Fundamental to this are projects like the U.S. State Department-funded Listen Up program, which seeks to tackle sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse (SHEA), tackle unequal gender norms, and develop tools for evaluation of GBV and SHEA prevention and response from the perspective of women and girls living and working in crisis situations.

In our programming we have developed gender equality standards as part of baseline programmatic standards and our program improvement system. We now insist that our gender equality standards be achieved for programs to be judged good or great, as a step towards a performance framework in which narrowing gender inequalities becomes core to definitions of quality outcomes. Our commitment to programs which successfully address violence against women and girls is central to that. And our new Safeguarding Director is part of an organisation-wide drive to ensure better training and tools for managers to prevent sexual abuse, deliver on new policies to strengthen protections for children beneficiaries, establish and promote survivor-centric policies, and deliver appropriate resources to investigations.

In our sector we need to institutionalise a pro-active approach to tackling inequalities faced by women and girls. For example:

  • within the Sustainable Development Goals, the sector should set clear targets for delivery of support to women and girls caught in crisis; without that these women will be the people left behind;
  • the sector need a series of no regrets commitments in every emergency, such as guaranteeing locks on all latrines and adequate lighting at all refugee camps, ensuring all peacekeeping missions include at least 5% of women in the force, and most fundamentally basic safeguarding measures in emergencies to establish a minimum of GBV risk-mitigation efforts, as well as comprehensive GBV response programming up and running within 72 hours of an emergency;
  • the sector needs to make women’s voices and leadership a part of all program design and assessment, particularly the voices of women beneficiaries;
  • and there should be a sector-wide Gender Equality Scorecard, similar to what IRC has developed for itself, with common targets, metrics, and data disaggregation.

This has got to be an iterative process, where we learn from our staff, our clients and our partners, committing to learn and adapt as we go along. That learning includes women-led organisations in the places where we work, including women-led organisations that our programs help to create. We hear from these women that they want more say in our sector, more space to find and use their voice. It is exciting in this regard that the Listen Up program was developed in partnership with locally-led women’s organisations.

We know that in countries that have been debating feminism, women’s rights and equality for over a hundred years, there is still a long way to go. We have 25 offices across the U.S. that now represent the largest refugee resettlement provision in the U.S., and the principles and ideas outlined today are applicable here too. But we are also working in countries where sometimes the word feminism is not known, and the concept misunderstood or derided. But that is not a reason to avoid the issues that it raises. It is a reason for it to be properly defined and defended, founded on a commitment to equality for women, requiring serious engagement with structures of power that generate inequality and injustice, with a commitment eventually to achieve their transformation.

That’s a huge goal. And a very hard one. But it is necessary if we are to do justice to the needs of the people we serve. We can’t do it on our own, which is why we are here, to appeal for your partnership, your ideas and your support. It’s going to take all of us.

That includes the men amongst us. Some people may say it is odd to have me saying all this as a man, and that’s understandable. But it’s critical that men serve as allies to the women who have been pioneers and teachers in this effort. I am the messenger today. And the message is clear.

We know this is an incredibly challenging time for the people we serve around the world. The Age of Impunity claims lives and livelihoods in crisis settings every day. Today IRC is fighting Ebola in DRC, keeping people alive in Idlib, helping traumatised Rohingya in Bangladesh. My message is that what I have talked about today is central to that work. There’s always a temptation to focus on getting on with what we are already know. But tackling inequalities of power that women and girls face is not a diversion from our mission; it is central to its achievement. It can’t wait. It’s a conversation, a dialogue, a set of actions that are desperately needed. It is precisely the scale of the humanitarian crisis that demands that we address it now.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue-uk.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.