RPN 20 published November 1995

3. Improving gender planning in emergency operations by Eftihia Voutira

In 1975 the First International Conference on Women in Nairobi set as its goal the promotion of womenns conditions through their inclusion in the guidelines and policies of humanitarian agencies. Two decades later, the integration and implementation of these principles are still far from being realised. The original theoretical framework that supported the Nairobi Conference was 'Women in Development' (WID). The main tenet of this view is that the problem facing women in the South is the lack of opportunity to participate in development. Accordingly, increasing womenns participation and improving their share in resources relative to those of men is a necessary condition to improve their living conditions.

The socio-conomic situation for women has worsened considerably, however, since the Women in Development approach was adopted by most major donors; women's relative access to economic resources, income and employment has decreased, their work burden has increased, and their relative and absolute health status has decreased, as has their nutritional and educational status. Specifically:

'Female literacy rates in the South are two-thirds those of the males. Girls' work, like their mothers' remains 'invisible' since it is not revealed in national censuses. Young women like their mothers, work longer hours, and encounter more cultural, social, legal and economic obstacles than do boys or men.

'Fewer girls enrol in school and far more drop out at an earlier stage than boys. Similarly, there is generally preferential treatment of male over female children for preventive and therapeutic health care.

In light of the failings of the WID informed projects, 'Gender and Development' (GAD) analysis emerged as the alternative, more radical, approach to improve women's conditions through enhancing their socioeconomic position within society. According to GAD, an examination of the needs and roles of both men and women is required before addressing the issue of women's improved access to resources and decisions over their use vis-à-vis men. Moving one step beyond a simple economic analysis and restoring the balance of material resources, GAD introduces the concept of social justice and the improvement of the quality of life for men and women.

The ambiguity embedded in the use of the concept of gender reflects the underlying assumptions of these two views. In most humanitarian agency literature, the concept of gender is introduced in order to refer to the improved condition only of women, but the perspective is defended on the grounds of gender sensitivity. This lack of conceptual clarity is one of the main obstacles to improving social and gender-sensitive planning and implementation of humanitarian assistance to refugees in emergency situations

Humanitarian agencies should seek to clarify their own position on placing women as a priority in emergencies. For example, in the 1980s the World Food Programme endorsed the WID approach to issues of women in the development process, on the grounds that it was ngood economicsn, since targeting resources at women is both costefficient and effective in development terms. In the 1990s WFP asserts that it subscribes to the GAD approach for reasons of social equity; however, its usage of the concept of gender remains narrowly focused on women. Consequently, this commitment is not stated explicitly in its mission statement nor is it incorporated in its field operations as a coherent framework for action.

For all that the humanitarian agenciesn position is that women should be targeted for distribution in emergencies because this increases intrahousehold food security, their commitment to GAD and to improving the position of women in a developmental way is marginal in that it addresses neither the interrelation of gender roles nor the sociopolitical context within which women are disempowered. In this situation the role of NGOs and UN agencies may be reduced to that of a logistics agency whose commitment to women can only be peripherally and procedurally addressed.

If, however, agencies take the position that women should be targeted in emergencies to help improve their overall position in society, the agency commitment must then extend beyond food security in emergencies, to include concern with the relationship between men and women. In this respect, a strategy promoting women as a priority in emergency situations would require agencies to move beyond their present narrow definition of women as a nvulnerable groupn and to play a more active advocatory role in promoting the interests and rights of women overall.

Dr Eftihia Voutira is a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Programme.

This excerpt is taken from: 'Improving Social and Gender Planning in Emergency Operations' to be published by RSP.

Return to Top of Page

October 1996