By Natalie Boychuck, former research assistant to the Humanitarian Grand Challenge, and a student at the Munk School of Global Affairs
Being a woman in humanitarian crisis is devastatingly far from easy; a fact that Noura al Jizawi, a Syrian revolutionary, mother, and masters student at the Munk School of Global Affairs understands too well. Noura was kidnapped by the Assad regime for her role as one of the leaders of the revolution and was held for seven months in Syria’s most notorious prisons, where sexual violence and lack of access to menstrual hygiene and obstetric care are common.
This is not only a problem for political prisoners. Women and girls who have been displaced in Syria are incredibly vulnerable to sexual violence. One woman described that, “There was a girl in Aleppo, and one of the army thugs liked her, and so he raped her before her parents and others.” Sexual violence isn’t only about sexual gratification. In the context of conflict, sexual violence is used to destroy the dignity and spirit of women and girls and to crush their potential. It’s this reality that keeps me up at night thinking about how humanitarian assistance can get better at reaching the most vulnerable women and girls.
Approximately 26 million women and girls of reproductive age currently require humanitarian assistance. These women and girls are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, early, child, and forced marriage, and human trafficking, and often lack the resources they need to meet their basic needs. For instance, approximately 500 women and girls in humanitarian crisis die every day from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. It is unsurprising that since the 2016 Humanitarian Summit, there has been a growing consensus in the humanitarian community of the importance of addressing the unique concerns of women and girls affected by conflict.
Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy emphasizes the reality that when given the opportunity, women and girls have the potential to influence and improve humanitarian responses. In short, engaging women and girls isn’t just the right thing to do; it has the potential to revolutionize the way we provide assistance to the people who need it the most. Noura is a perfect example of this. After escaping Syria to Turkey, Noura began working tirelessly to protect women and girls trapped in Syria, founding a nonprofit organization helping female victims of torture and speaking as part of the Women’s Consultative Committee in Geneva advocating for political change.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) wrote that “the humanitarian community continually fails to properly engage women and girls in plans, responses, and recovery efforts that are launched on their behalf.” It’s clear that in order to best reach the most vulnerable women and girls with the assistance they need, humanitarian programs need to get better at speaking to women and girls directly and working under their leadership. This has made me think deeply about what we can do to engage women and girls at Grand Challenges Canada as funders of global health, Indigenous, and humanitarian innovation.
We recently closed the Request for Proposals for “Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge,” which we launched with the USAID Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). I was disappointed when I learned that of the 615 applications we received, only 33 per cent came from women. Still, I am proud that the Humanitarian Grand Challenge that took this information as an opportunity to find ways to better reach women in humanitarian crises where they are.
Since the close of the Request for Proposals, we’ve consulted with women’s rights activists from conflict-affected areas to better understand the barriers to women leading projects and learning about opportunities for funding. We’ve pushed to ensure that we have gender parity in the external reviewers who volunteer to assess proposals, to ensure that women are not impacted by gender bias in our funding decisions.
Trying to help vulnerable women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence is not an easy area to work on. The causes are complicated and multi-fold, and barriers to reaching young women just to understand their needs are incredibly difficult and expensive to overcome. And yet, Noura’s story shows that women are capable of designing solutions to the challenges they face and that when they do, they have the power to completely change the status quo. I’m looking forward to seeing the Humanitarian Grand Challenge support bold, women-led projects doing just that.
Natalie Boychuk is a former research assistant to the Humanitarian Grand Challenge, and a student at the Munk School of Global Affairs studying Peace and Conflict.
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