Promoting women’s dignity and empowerment in humanitarian response

by Oxfam Canada | June 14, 2018
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As I leaned over, I felt a tug on my headscarf, which led me to believe that I was stuck. Very stuck. At that very moment, my long dress was equally entangled in a web of enormous thorns.

It was actually while bending down to untangle my dress that caused my headscarf to snag – but let’s backtrack for a moment.

That day, I was on a field visit to Somaliland, the self-declared autonomous, yet widely unrecognized region in the western part of Somalia. Somaliland, like a large part of the Horn of Africa, suffered from a severe drought in 2017, which left millions hungry and without access to clean and safe water.

I was deployed to Somaliland to monitor Oxfam’s life-saving drought response in the region. The majority of the response was focused on the provision of “WASH” (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene assistance). Of particular interest to me on this trip was observing how the response had improved access to safe and clean water and sanitation facilities for women and girls.

That day, it was actually a “sanitation” related tangle that I had found myself in.

“When I visited project sites last month I heard over and over that Oxfam was the only NGO that had come. Life is difficult in Somalia and reoccurring drought makes surviving harder than ever, especially for women and girls.”

Long, dusty car rides across the desert offer little in the way of privacy to relieve oneself. A thorny desert bush was the only place available on the long drive through the expansive desert. Unfortunately for me, I had managed to thoroughly tangle myself in it. Yet, even so, this need for privacy was nothing compared to what the tens of thousands of women we were assisting in displaced persons camps were facing on a day-to-day basis.

The Oxfam team hosting my visit, as in many humanitarian responses, was heavily male. To stop for this break, I had to halt a three-car convoy. Despite feeling supported and safe throughout my visit – thanks to a fantastic host team- it was still an awkward moment that caused me to pause and reflect.

Thankfully, part of the minimum “Gender in Emergency” standards that Oxfam adheres to focuses on promoting women’s dignity and empowerment in humanitarian response. Mostly, this focuses on the women and girls we serve in our response, ensuring they can access services and feel empowered to demand space for themselves and their needs.  But it almost means making space for women to work in our responses.

With your help, Oxfam has reached more than 36,000 people in Somalia with water and sanitation so far.

Oxfam recognizes that good programming for women goes beyond simply building a toilet and assigning it a “Ladies” sign. It includes supporting team members to feel comfortable pulling over for “sanitation stops”. A gender-inclusive humanitarian response is a better response, and I am thankful we are getting there one pit stop at a time.

Heather Patterson is a Humanitarian Program Officer at Oxfam Canada. Her work at Oxfam has taken her throughout the Middle East and Africa

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