08/09/2016 01:23 EDT | Updated 08/09/2016 01:59 EDT

Canada's Humanitarian Action Must Be Feminist And Principled

Probal Rashid via Getty Images
JAMALPUR, MYMENSINGH, BANGLADESH - 2016/08/02: A flood affected woman receives relief while other hundreds havent get due to the local governments mismanagement at Islampur in Jamalpur. According to the Bangladesh Disaster Management Bureau around 1.5 million people have been affected by this year flood. Rivers in the north started to rise in early July and by the 20th of July nearly all of them started to flow over the danger level. It caused floods in 6 districts, namely, Lalmonirhat, Kurigram, Gaibandha, Jamalpur, Sirajganj and Sunamganj initially and inundated crop fields and dwelling areas, washed away standing crops, houses and households assets, livestock and displaced the affected people.Bangladesh is one of the most climate change-vulnerable and disaster-prone countries. The rivers of this country are facing tremendous environmental anomalies. They overflow during the rainy season but shrink in other seasons. Floods in our country are directly or indirectly related to sub-Himalayan countries like India, Bhutan, and Nepal. An understanding should be made to protect the eco-system in the regions to minimize the risks of flash floods, and to share the water resources as per international laws. (Photo by Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By Kevin Dunbar and Bart Witteveen

Global humanitarian need is on the rise. The UN estimates that 125 million people need humanitarian relief and more than 60 million people are displaced from their homes. The Government of Canada's international assistance review could not have come at a more critical time.

The Minister of International Development and La Francophonie has boldly asked the Government of Canada to apply a "feminist lens" to the international assistance review. But what does that look like, in practice, in a humanitarian context?

Disasters do not discriminate, but ultimately due to structural gender inequalities kill more women than men, and affect women's livelihoods hardest. Sixty per cent of all maternal deaths take place in humanitarian settings and all forms of gender based violence against women and girls spike during disasters and conflict. While women, girls, men, and boys all suffer in a crisis, due to deep-rooted gender inequalities women and girls face greater obstacles in reaching their potential and leading safe, healthy, and dignified lives.

Done right, humanitarian assistance can reinforce civil society and result in more balanced power dynamics.

However, women and girls are not vulnerable, passive recipients of assistance. Women play critical roles in emergency situations -- leading relief and recovery efforts, and taking on increasing responsibilities inside and outside of the house. Emergencies spark shifts in gender dynamics within affected communities. They present a critical opportunity to invest and support women's valuable contributions, while building more equitable and self-reliant communities.

So how can we as the humanitarian community change our narrative around women and girls in emergencies to one that is empowering and reflective of their strengths and contributions?

As a first step we need to listen. We need to involve women and girls in designing the services and activities of aid organisations, and systematically ask for feedback. Humanitarian programs that aren't contextually and culturally appropriate and based on a community's understanding of its own needs are at best less effective and at worst can be harmful. Supporting gender equality requires that we don't work exclusively with women and girls, but boys and men to change social norms and address the different barriers that hinder their full participation in society and access to human rights.

Second, we need a more localized approach. Humanitarian actors must move beyond direct implementation and work in partnership with local, women-led civil society groups -- which are both closer to, and more trusted by, communities. Done right, humanitarian assistance can reinforce civil society and result in more balanced power dynamics.

Third, we need to fund the right programs. Applying a true "feminist lens" requires that the Government of Canada make it a strict requirement that all humanitarian response programs it supports be underpinned by strong gender analysis. All humanitarian funding allocations should be assessed against the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Gender Marker tool to be, at minimum, "gender sensitive."

There is an urgent need to evolve and develop new ways of working to respond more effectively to global crises that are stretching the international humanitarian system beyond capacity.

A further fundamental challenge in international assistance is the complex nature of crises related to protracted conflicts that in some cases span decades. Under these circumstances the delivery of aid is precarious and dangerous. Political objectives quickly subsume the humanitarian imperative and the military intervention is messaged together with the humanitarian operations. The introduction of counter-terror legislation adds another layer of complexity, further complicating the funding and delivery of humanitarian aid. This all threatens to undermine Canada's efforts to effectively support populations in danger.

The approach that humanitarian actors use to address these complexities and challenges is to engage in principled humanitarian action based on the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence -- providing aid in response and proportionate to assessed needs; without discrimination and favour to any party to the conflict; and autonomous of any political, military, or other objective. This is not just a philosophical ambition to do the right thing, but also has a very practical dimension as the key tool to building "community acceptance," which enables negotiating humanitarian space and gaining access to the most vulnerable.

The Canadian humanitarian community, including the Government of Canada, must make a genuine commitment to counter the prevailing trend of the politicization of humanitarian aid with a clear voice advocating a commitment to the humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law. The overarching objective is to ensure that humanitarian aid will not be a foreign policy nor conflict management tool and will be protected by legislation to that end.

There is an urgent need to evolve and develop new ways of working to respond more effectively to global crises that are stretching the international humanitarian system beyond capacity. The Government of Canada's 2016 International Assistance Review presents a critical opportunity to foster real change in the way humanitarian assistance is delivered, and recommit to the humanitarian principles, international human rights and other frameworks for protecting the most vulnerable, and to create an enabling policy that puts gender equity for the most vulnerable women and girls at the center.

This blog was first published on August 8 in The Hill Times.

Kevin Dunbar is Director of CARE Canada's humanitarian assistance and emergency team. Bart Witteveen is Director of World Vision Canada's humanitarian and emergency affairs team.

The views expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of CCIC or its members.

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