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On International Women’s Day, Medair’s International Programmes Director, Anne Reitsema, offers her thoughts on the unique challenges facing women in times of emergencies and why we must act.

For the last 14 years, I have been responding to humanitarian crises in a host of countries, including Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. Despite every crisis being unique, I have also seen many similarities. One of them is that time and again, women and their children are among the hardest hit.

Conflicts and disasters endanger the lives and dignity of women. Men suffer in these situations as well, but women and children are exposed to unique threats during these chaotic situations that make them particularly vulnerable.

Rohingya girls in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh (©Medair/Tam Berger)

Here are 5 reasons why we must invest in women in times of crisis:

1. Women are often left alone to care for their families

Crises dramatically increase the number of women supporting their families on their own. Often, husbands and fathers have been killed, imprisoned, or joined an armed group. One in six families in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, for example, are reportedly headed by a woman.

Women who are left to care for their families alone are less likely to earn an income, lack the protection normally provided by two-parent households, are often excluded from decision-making processes within the community, and are left to cope with personal grief and trauma alone.

Theresa, a 29-year-old South Sudanese widow and mother of four, told us when she visited our clinic:Since my husband passed away, I need to feed my family, and take care of my children’s education and shelter on my own. It has been difficult to get food. I sell tea in the market, but if I don’t sell anything, there’s no way to feed my children.”

Women and children waiting at a Medair nutrition centre in South Sudan (©Medair/Albert Gonzalez Farran)

2. Pregnant women lack the vital support they need

Even in countries with the highest levels of maternal health care, giving birth and caring for a baby is an enormous challenge and responsibility. For women living in a place where health care is unaffordable, or if they are forced to flee from their home, childbirth can become life-threatening.  In fact, 60 percent of all preventable maternal deaths worldwide occur in places marked by conflicts and natural disasters.

When I was leading Medair’s programme in South Sudan, one day our emergency response team encountered a woman sitting on the side of the road on their way to a project site. The woman, Angeline, was in labour. The nearest health facility was too far away, so our midwife on the team helped the woman safely deliver her baby girl right there in the grass.

I’m grateful that we happened to be there for Angeline and her baby, but sadly, this story is no exception. Poor infrastructure, distance from functioning health facilities, insecurity, poor hygiene practices, and inadequate emergency referral services give women in crisis little hope of receiving adequate maternal health services.

Lorin, an Iraqi mother, receives maternal care at a Medair clinic

3. Women are often victims of violence

Women are more susceptible to sexual and gender-based violence when social structures are eroded by conflict, and they are especially vulnerable during migration and displacement. Roughly one in five refugee women has been exposed to sexual violence (Global Humanitarian Overview 2019). The real numbers are likely to be even higher, as many cases go unreported.

Sexual and gender-based violence leaves a deep impact on both the physical and mental health of survivors. Many of the survivors have no one to turn to for protection, leaving them even more vulnerable.

4. Women often carry psychological wounds without support

Psychological wounds are not visible, but the loss of family members, homes, and familiar ways of life all profoundly affect the health of women. Many are overcoming traumas that include witnessing atrocities and surviving sexual assault or torture in addition to enduring the day-to-day struggles of displacement.

Haleema, a Syrian refugee in our psychosocial programme in Jordan, told us about the impact of a bombing on her village:

“My life changed that day. I could not remove that scene from my head. I became an aggressive person and I started screaming at my children all the time. I decided to flee Syria and come to Jordan where my husband lived. Doing so meant leaving behind the only country I had ever known – a country that was no longer safe for us.”

Shary, an Iraqi woman, shows photos that represent the missing members of her family.  Today, 41 are still missing

5. Investing in women means investing in entire communities

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by crises. Yet, too often they are only seen as victims, not contributing actors in the community. Research shows that the entire community benefits when women are included in humanitarian action (UN Women 2015). That’s one reason why Medair works with mother-to-mother groups to develop healthier family practices that can prevent future illnesses in themselves and their children. These groups of 10-15 mothers meet regularly for training and support on health, nutrition, and hygiene topics. Then, these mothers visit their neighbours to check on their health and promote positive change in their community.

By setting up mother-to-mother groups, we are helping women to help each other, thereby creating sustainable support networks. This is a great example for me of the importance of putting women at the heart of humanitarian interventions.

Sudanese refugee women attending a mother-to-mother group session

How we support

Medair’s mission is to serve the world’s most vulnerable people with high-quality humanitarian aid. Our programmes therefore place a strong focus on helping women and their children survive crisis with dignity. This includes providing medical support for pregnant women and new mothers and psychosocial support to help women learn to become active survivors rather than passive victims.

We also train women in new skills and help them to set up mother-to-mother groups to develop healthier hygiene practices that can prevent future illnesses in themselves and their children. These kinds of programmes not only help hundreds of thousands of women and children survive, but also to thrive.

One mother involved in our mother-to-mother groups said, “We are just housewives and mothers here. We’ve never been to school because of the war. When Medair gave me training, I realised that I had a real value to my household. I can keep my family from getting ill. I never knew before that I could make such a difference.”

Ultimately, we are here not only to save lives, but to remind women of their value and help restore dignity in hard times.

Make a lasting difference in the lives of women around the world.