What is Canada’s Role in the Global Movement to Protect Women and Girls in Disasters and Emergencies (Keep Her Safe)?

by Beth Woroniuk, WPSN-C Steering Committee Member

New commitments: Keep Her Safe

On November 13, 2013, governments, UN agencies and NGOs met in London and committed to strong action to protect women and girls in disasters and emergencies. The event and Call to Action were called “Keep Her Safe.”

The main focus of the meeting was preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in emergencies. But the discussion went further. The importance of including reproductive health care in humanitarian responses was also highlighted. And the broader goal of recognizing women and girls as actors and strengthening their involvement in disaster mitigation and response was included.

The evidence on the urgency to act is clear. Reports from Syria,  Central African RepublicColombia and numerous other places document horrors and inaction. Moreover Plan called its most recent Because I Am a Girl report Double Jeopardy, recognizing that adolescent girls face multiple challenges in emergencies because they are both young and female.

However, the humanitarian community has been slow to respond.

As Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, has noted:

“I think there’s a realization that as an international community – UN agencies, donors and NGOs – we have failed. We have not been able to see these problems that are right under our noses. And that is good, because people are now owning up, and coming out with very basic, practical things that need to be done on the ground to protect women. At the policy level, the leadership, we have recognized the gaps, but the biggest challenge is the implementation on the ground. That’s where the difference will be made.”

The Call to Action communique from the November 13th meeting sets out numerous commitments to change how the international community responds to disasters, including:

  • Act – or fund action – to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls (VAWG) in emergencies before waiting for evidence of specific instances of VAWG to emerge.
  • Increase investment in VAWG prevention, preparedness, protection, response and resilience.
  • In recognition that health and medical services are life-saving and often the entry point for work to prevent and respond to VAWG, we commit to promote and support the implementation of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health, psychosocial and mental health services from the onset of an emergency and throughout the life of the humanitarian response. This includes promoting and supporting the implementation of the Minimum Initial Service Package for reproductive health in crisis situations.
  • Promote the empowerment of women and girls of all ages and abilities affected by crisis, by supporting the active and meaningful participation in the assessment of needs, design of service provision, in risk mitigation, as providers of assistance and in evaluation of services
  • Promote meaningful engagement of and partnership with local civil society, including women’s rights groups, women human rights defenders, communities and faith groups, in the analysis, design and implementation of programmes and service delivery

During the meeting the UK announced £21.6 million in new initiatives to back up these commitments. Other funding commitments totalling £19.7 million were also made by the United States, Switzerland, Japan and Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).

Canada signed on to “Keep Her Safe” Commitments – but what does it mean?

Canada signed the communique.  But the extent of Canada’s commitments are unclear.

This was a high-level meeting. It was co-chaired by the UK’s International Development Secretary and Sweden’s International Development Minister. Six heads of UN agencies participated. John Kerry, US Secretary of State delivered his support for the initiative in a pre-recorded statement. Canada was represented by the High Commissioner to the UK, already in London.

A search of the DFATD website for “Keep Her Safe” yields ‘no results.’ In other words, there is no official recognition of the meeting and the Call to Action. There is no ministerial statement or speech.

According to Government of Canada officials, during the meeting Canadian High Commissioner Campbell stated that Canada will focus its efforts on three key areas:

  1. Canada will prioritize the protection of vulnerable populations and the prevention of violence against women and girls in humanitarian contexts in our engagement with multilateral and non-governmental partners;
  2. Canada will support innovative approaches to protecting women and girls who have been affected by crises; and,
  3. Eliminating the practice of child, early and forced marriage is a key foreign policy priority for Canada.

Canada did not make a financial commitment.

This is particularly interesting as a recent report on Donor Spending on Gender in Emergencies 2013 notes that of the top 10 donors to UN emergency appeals, Canada funded the highest percentage of ‘gender blind’ projects. Canada has also not released promised annual reports on its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security which should contain information on related initiatives.

What’s Next?

Those participating in the meeting agreed to a follow-up event next year, hosted by the United States, to assess progress.

However, there are big questions around whether or if the Call to Action will result in changes to how humanitarian assistance is prioritized and delivered.

A recent news report questions whether or not these commitments have made a difference in the first big disaster since the communique was signed. “A new effort to protect women from rape and help them deliver babies in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines remains troubled and inadequate, the United Nations and international aid groups said this week.”

Questions for Canada

Given that we haven’t heard much in Canada about DFATD’s commitments around the Call to Action on Keep Her Safe, it is important that the Government clarify:

  • What new funding is Canada allocating to keep the commitments it made in the Call to Action?
  • How will Canada’s humanitarian assistance funding specifically respond to the commitments in the Keep Her Safe Call to Action?
  • How will Canada report on and be accountable for the commitments it made in the Keep Her Safe Call to Action?

When will the Government release its reports on its National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, given that two annual reports are now overdue?

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