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Invisible victims: the female face of emergencies

In the mad rush to deliver aid to humanitarian hot spots, aid agencies usually ignore the special needs of women, who often outnumber men in relief camps.

From Kosovo to Kigali, whenever natural or man-made emergencies break out, the main television images seen around the world are those of children – pictures that tug at the heartstrings of viewers.

But behind every orphaned or malnourished child are men and women and their untold stories. Doubly ignored is the story of women – although disaster hits them harder than men.

Last summer, when drought hit Ethiopia, two-year-old Abdi Mohammed turned up at the feeding centre in Gode, 650 km southeast of the capital Addis Ababa. He was with his mother, who had to undertake a 220 kilometre-walk with her children after her husband left with the family's few remaining livestock in search of pasture.

"I don't know where he is – probably in the bush somewhere," she said then. "We used to be rich, but for the last one-and-a-half years, our livestock have been dying."

Their family drama, and the broader crisis that engulfed Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti, came at a time when aid agencies were being urged to ensure that women's special needs were not ignored in the rush to respond swiftly to disasters.

The need to address the issue became all the more urgent in January this year, when the United Nations World Food Programme warned that the combination of conflict and natural disasters will continue to take its toll in 2001.

"We have seen an alarming trend where the poorest nations are hit simultaneously by both natural and man-made emergencies including in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Tajikistan," said WFP head Catherine Bertini.

"Unfortunately, we see a potential for that to continue or even increase in 2001."

The subject has been raised by two researchers, Bridget Byrne and Sally Baden of Britain's University of Sussex, who say that in future, emergency relief should be planned with women in focus right from the start.

"A gender approach will not necessarily slow down the delivery of relief and moreover can ensure more effective relief assistance, through improved targeting of resources," they say in their paper, Gender, Emergencies and Humanitarian Assistance.

"The cost of mistakes falls directly on women themselves, in terms of their time, energy and health. The way women tend to absorb a lot of these costs means they are often not immediately visible."

Women usually make up a disproportionately large share of displaced populations in emergencies, often travelling to refugee camps or feeding centres with their young children, while men search for food and work or are caught up in the conflict.

Sexual violence is common, and it usually escalates when families are separated. The way camps are planned can go a long way to protecting women. Private washing areas, safe access to water outlets and firewood, and protected living areas are all essential, say the researchers.

They say that because women are in charge of cooking, they ought to be consulted on the choice of food aid. An unfamiliar food grain can take a long time to prepare and cook. This needs extra firewood – again, usually collected by women.

Sometimes food comes at a price – there have been reports of camp officials demanding sex for extra food rationing.

Women also need provision for childcare, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. Bayden and Byrne say one of the main barriers to integrating women's needs at an early stage is what they call the "culture of speed" of many aid organisations.

"Relief operations are driven by a sense of urgency which tends to favour top-down, donor-dependent, expatriate-run operations, reliant on a narrow range of indicators, while integration of developmental and gender concerns, requires a fuller understanding of gender relations – and more bottom-up, participatory methods."

But some say this is not inevitable.

"There is a bit of a myth around speed," says Suzanne Williams, adviser on gender and conflict issues to the international aid agency Oxfam. "Of course you can't hang around, but agencies usually take at least a week to get to emergencies."

Chansa Kapaya, who is in charge of gender issues for Eastern Africa at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says gender issues were often given lower priority when the agency was faced with the dilemma of competing priorities during an emergency. Now new UNHCR guidelines require projects, even if conducted during an emergency, to include a gender perspective.

"When considering any sector, even if it's toilets, we ask: 'How does that impact on women and children?'" says Kapaya.

But emergencies director for the American aid agency CARE, Marge Tsitouris, says that putting guidelines into practice can be difficult.

She gives the example of the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis. Agencies were overwhelmed by its intensity and fell short on issues such as the privacy of latrines and giving women decision-making power at the camp level. "It's difficult to do much more than just feed people when an emergency is at its peak," she says.

Byrne and Baden are calling for their own "bottom line" of procedures that must be followed no matter how bad the emergency.

This includes separate registration of refugee women, attention to women's security issues and care in the method of distributing resources. And more female staff, who speak the local language, at the camp management level.

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Panos London

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