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Marcy Hersh for Refugees International – WNN SOAPBOX

Women in camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

A woman living in a displacement camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti shows her level of survival with a makeshift home that has no ability to lock the door from intruders. Image: Refugees International

(RI) Port-au-Prince, Haiti, CARIBBEAN, AMERICAS: There is always a convenient excuse. In Haiti, we don’t have the time. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we don’t have the funding. In the Syrian refugee response, we don’t have the experts. Somehow, there is always a pat answer to why we, the humanitarian community, fail to protect women and girls in emergency after emergency.

In Haiti, when the earthquake hit in January 2010 and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, reports immediately emerged that women and girls were extremely vulnerable to rape and other forms of violence. This awareness did not lead to effective action.

Of the $1.4 billion requested for earthquake relief, less than 0.3 percent went to gender-based violence prevention or response. When humanitarians were asked to mitigate women’s risks through simple measures (like placing latrines in safe locations, ensuring equitable access to food distributions, and building safe shelters) they declined, saying that these actions were not a priority. They claimed there just wasn’t enough time to respond to the needs of women and girls.

In eastern DRC, significant resources have been allocated for gender-based violence programs over the years. That has led to the assumption that because funding is generous, the needs of women and girls are actually being addressed. But in truth, humanitarians have extremely limited access to these funds when they really need them: the moment when an emergency hits.

As I reported earlier this year, these resources are exclusively linked to longer-term stability initiatives and not emergency response. Also, as a result of poor leadership and bureaucratic delays, the UN has allowed a $4 million donation for gender-based violence programming to languish in a bank account for a year. Without these funds, humanitarians are struggling to operate with extremely limited resources.

In the Syrian refugee crisis, too, urgent needs have gone unmet. As I reported last year, many Syrian women are fleeing into neighboring countries to escape the threat of sexual violence. Yet even in exile, they struggle to find safe refuge. At the time, two years into the Syrian crisis, there was still extremely limited funding for gender-based violence services and few experts on the ground.

Experience has shown that every single humanitarian crisis puts women and girls at great risk. Yet in every crisis, advocates must demand anew that their needs be addressed. This should not be necessary. There are international guidelines in place that tell humanitarians what to look for and what steps to take to protect women, but these guidelines are never observed.

It’s getting old. And it doesn’t have to be like this. Humanitarians are extremely efficient at delivering food, water, and shelter to civilians displaced by conflict and disasters. Why aren’t they equally proficient at protecting women and girls from violence? The answer is heartbreakingly simple: women and girls have not been the priority.

But now, there is reason to hope that this tired narrative will finally change. On November 13th, the UK’s Department for International Development will launch the worldwide Call to Action to End Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies. Not just another diplomatic chat session, the Call to Action will see donors and humanitarians make concrete promises that will drive systemic and lasting change.

Of course, it will take more than a one-off pledge of funds or a single declaration of intent to reform the humanitarian community. That’s why the Call to Action will look at the historical barriers to implementing gender-based violence programs and address them with targeted and sustained commitments made by key donors, UN agencies, and NGOs in the areas where progress is most needed.

The dream of the Call to Action is that never again will anyone say there isn’t enough time, money, or expertise to protect women’s lives and dignity. Instead, there will be effective programming from the start of every emergency that delivers tangible, measurable improvements in the safety and well-being of women and girls.

I am thrilled to see an event of this size and magnitude dedicated to addressing gender-based violence, and I hope we will seize this unique opportunity. Women and girls around the world deserve no less.

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Marcy Hersh joined Refugees International in July 2012 as a Senior Advocate focusing on women and children’s rights.

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