women's leadership in emergencies

Volunteers saving bricks from destroyed ancient buildings in Kathmandu after the devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015. Photo by Vlad Sokhin/ActionAid.

As the number of disasters and conflicts are increasing around the world, women and girls in affected communities bear the brunt of humanitarian emergencies. Women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster (IUCN, 2014). The risk of violence increases and rape has become a weapon of war. Women also bear the heaviest burden of care in an emergency, such as in the current East Africa food crisis where women walk vast distances searching for food and water for their families.

Women in disaster and conflicts find the odds stacked against them, and this precarious situation is too often compounded by ineffective models of humanitarian response. Humanitarian response regularly excludes women from decision-making processes and fails to account for women’s specific needs and experiences in a disaster. The cumulative impact of this failure is catastrophic for women’s rights and reverberates long after the disaster is over and the community’s infrastructure has been rebuilt. There is a better way we can be responding.

The response to humanitarian crises can be an opportunity for radical change.

womne's leadership in emergencies

When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, 28-year-old Imelda Bama was on the frontlines of the emergency response. Photo by ActionAid.

From more than a decade of pioneering women-led emergency response, ActionAid has witnessed firsthand that when women are front and centre in emergency response, they are among the most effective responders to disasters. Drawing on their existing skills, knowledge and community networks, women take the lead in caring for the injured and most vulnerable and ensuring the food security of their families. But critically, humanitarian emergencies present an opportunity for women to realise their leadership potential and to transform the way women are viewed in their communities long term. Put simply, investing in women’s leadership in preparing and responding to emergencies can yield tremendous dividends in gender equality.

 women’s leadership in emergencies

Sabita Rani helped lead over 500 people to safety in Bangladesh during Cyclone Mahasen in 2013, as a trained Emergency Response Leader. Photo by Turjoy Chowdhury, ActionAid.

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster preparedness are big impact investments. The numbers speak for themselves. Every dollar spent on preparing for a disaster saves seven dollars in future losses during a crisis, not to mention saving countless lives (UNDP, 2012). DRR is efficient and cost effective and lays the foundational stones for how disaster-affected communities will respond when crisis hits. When this programming is focused on supporting women’s leadership and ability to prepare, communities can achieve rapid advances in women’s rights.

I have seen this transformation firsthand in communities around the globe during recent emergencies in Bangladesh, Nepal, Philippines and Vanuatu. I know just how profound the impact of women’s leadership in emergencies can be, particularly for women who have historically been denied resources and a voice. Witnessing women rise up to lead their communities in times of crisis, inspired me to initiate ActionAid’s Arise fund – the first ever global fund for women’s leadership in emergency response and preparedness focused on creating long-term, transformational change for women.

women’s leadership in emergencies

Wendy Tomasi helped lead the humanitarian response when Cyclone Pam struck Vanuatu in 2015. Photo by: Jeff Tan, ActionAid.

Arise launches this World Humanitarian Day, Saturday 19 August, and will support women’s leadership in preparing for and responding to emergencies, reaching up to one million people in 12 target countries. The fund will draw on ActionAid’s experience leading internationally recognised, women-led emergency response programs around the globe.

But the fund’s real impact will be in its vision for global gender equality. Arise will support women to act in the critical window of opportunity that is opened during a crisis; a window in which women can rise up, claim their rights and take their place as community leaders long after the emergency has passed. It is this vision that makes the fund a truly impactful and strategic investment.

Australians are incredibly generous in times of crisis, but the real trick to saving lives and igniting radical change for gender equality is to give before disaster hits. This ensures communities are organised and ready to respond and prevent the impact of disasters and conflicts. Investing in women’s leadership in emergency preparedness and response shifts the power to those who face the greatest risks and will ensure the devastation wrought by a tsunami, an earthquake or a war does not disproportionately impact women.

A crisis can be a catalytic moment. Investment in the right response can enable a disaster to transform poverty into dignity, vulnerability into security and inequality into equity.


Michelle Higelin is Executive Director at ActionAid Australia. Photo by ActionAid Australia.

Michelle Higelin is Executive Director at ActionAid Australia. Photo by ActionAid Australia.

To express your interest in Arise, please contact Claire Pryce, Philanthropy and Partnership Manager at ActionAid Australia, on 02 9565 9102