#WPSAdvice: Support your allies, Canada: Women on the frontlines of crisis

By Shaughn McArthur, Policy and Influence Lead, CARE Canada

I first met Angelina Nyajima Simon Jial at a humanitarian conference in Geneva in 2016.

She was gentle and soft-spoken, and I wondered how she would fare among the caffeine-fueled delegations from international organizations, vying for influence and visibility.

Sitting in the vast plenary hall on the last day of the conference, my doubts were cast aside when Angelina’s image suddenly appeared on the jumbotron. 

The light on her microphone turned green. As Angelina began to speak, delegates looked up from their Twitter feeds. The hall fell silent.

Her voice was soft, her words measured. But Angelina’s message was the most powerful any of us had heard in days. 

Angelina spoke of her experiences and challenges as head of Hope Restoration South Sudan, the small organization she established in 2010. Its mission is to help women in a country with some of the world’s highest rates of gender-based violence (GBV). 

Hope Restoration has struggled for adequate and sustainable finance for years. Angelina spoke about how she had recently been forced to close a safe space dedicated to helping GBV survivors. Just six months after its opening, the centre’s funding had been redirected to other “priorities.”

Why? 

Angelina offered some answers:

Because women’s rights and agency are still not central to humanitarian planning and decision-making. 

Because our compliance systems privilege established organizations. 

Because too many powerful humanitarian actors remain unwilling to cede power to local women’s rights actors. 

Because protecting and helping women recover from even the most egregious violations of personal security is still considered optional, or less important than the right to water, shelter and food.

Months later, Angelina would carry her message to the United Nations Security Council. 

She spoke as clearly then, to the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries, as she had in that conference hall in Geneva:

 “How do you tell someone who has been subjected to horrific acts of sexual violence that you can no longer help them?” 

Angelina’s question should serve as guidance to whomever oversees international assistance policy under the next Government of Canada.

Conflict-related gender-based violence on the rise

The facts speak for themselves: In an era of multiple protracted crises, sexual and gender-based violence continues to be used with impunity in conflict and emergency settings around the world.

Just last month, a UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded that the country’s soldiers “routinely and systematically employed rape, gang rape and other violent and forced sexual acts against women, girls, boys, men and transgender people.” 

Today, mothers of the children born of this violence nurse in limbo, stigmatized and ostracized, in refugee camps along the Bangladeshi side of the border.

In 2018, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) documented 1,049 cases of conflict-related sexual violence against 605 women, 436 girls, 4 men and 4 boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

A 2018 report by the International Federation for Human Rights documents ISIL fighters’ systematic enslavement and sexual violence against the Yazidi minority in Iraq.

Worldwide, more than 70% of women in conflict and emergency situations have experienced gender-based violence.

A Canadian priority

Canadians can be proud that successive Cabinets have emphasized women’s rights to protection from GBV in their foreign policies.

In 1994, Canada facilitated the creation of the position of UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. 

In 2012, Canada helped establish the annual resolution on violence against women at the UN Human Rights Council. 

In 2013, Canada pledged $5 million to G8 efforts targeting sexual violence in conflict zones. 

Just last year, Canada’s G7 Presidency saw the adoption of the Whistler declaration on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in humanitarian action

Parliamentarians from around the world later made separate commitments to tackle gender inequality and GBV in a landmark Ottawa Statement of Commitment

Canada has strong foundations for continued leadership on GBV in emergencies. 

The major task for Canada’s next Minister of International Development will be to translate these commitments into tangible support for women like Angelina.

A blueprint

The concept of supporting women’s participation in the design and implementation of humanitarian responses is written into the Government’s new Feminist Humanitarian Policy

The question now is how Canada will go about implementing that policy in a way that more consistently upholds women’s and girls’ rights and agency on the ground.

Earlier this year, CARE, along with more than 40 organizations around the world, released a blueprint entitled “Women and girls’ rights and agency in humanitarian action: A life-saving priority.”

It is based on months of consultation – with humanitarian organizations, networks, advocacy groups, and the countless partners like Angelina, with whom we work every day.

The position covers five broad areas:

  1. Women’s and girls’ voice and leadership;
  2. Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights;
  3. Gender-Based Violence;
  4. Prevention of Sexual Harassment, Exploitation and Abuse; and
  5. Women’s Economic Empowerment.

These are understood to be non-optional and mutually reinforcing – take one away, and the others will fail.

But its call to action can be summarized in three key points:

  1. Ensure meaningful participation of women and girls – both at high-level roundtables in Geneva and New York, as well as at cluster meetings in crisis-affected countries like South Sudan.
  2. Hold humanitarian agencies accountable to work with women’s and girls’ rights actors – including through quantitative and qualitative reporting.
  3. Mobilize long-term, predictable funding for local women and girls’ rights actors – because these organizations alone are capable of putting women at centre of conversation before the response even begins. And they will still be there when everyone else has left.

Turning point

There is no longer any question of women being passive victims waiting for help. 

They are volunteers, activists, and first responders. They are risking their lives to help and speak up for others. To ignore this reality leads to less effective and efficient humanitarian responses. And it puts lives at risk.

A more systematic approach for upholding women’s and girls’ rights and agency in humanitarian action is within reach. 

Canada knows this to be true as much as any other rights-respecting country on earth. 

And leaders like Angelina are looking to Canada to lead by example, and to champion measures among governments, humanitarian agencies are willing to cede some of our power to bring about that shift.

As a longstanding proponent of the rights-based international order, the next Government of Canada can demonstrate its forward-looking agenda by leading efforts to uphold women’s and girls’ rights where they are furthest behind: in conflict and emergency settings.

This begins by working more directly with women on the frontlines – women like Angelina who, with the right kind of support, are ready and capable to be some of Canada’s strongest allies in the fight to eradicate gender-based violence in conflicts and emergencies worldwide.

Please note that the views in these blog posts are those of the author and may not represent the views of all members of the WPSN-C.

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