Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are considered central to an effective, inclusive, and rights-based response in crisis, conflict, and natural disasters. Understanding gender roles and power dynamics in an affected community, including intersections with other identity factors such as age, disability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class, is critical to ensure that humanitarian programs and activities meet the needs of women, men, girls, boys, and other groups in the affected community and “do no harm” by inadvertently reinforcing inequality, marginalization, and exclusion.
Gender equality programming in humanitarian responses has been demonstrated to increase access to services and assistance, including education and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, for women and girls; improve the participation, agency, and decision-making power of women and girls in their relationships, households, and communities; and decrease security risks, including the risk of verbal or emotional forms of gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls. There is also evidence that gender equality strategies that engage men and boys—even in those activities that target women and girls—have a higher likelihood of successful outcomes for women and girls, reducing the risk of resentment and resistance from the wider community.
With support from Global Affairs Canada, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) is working to advance gender equality in humanitarian programming globally. As part of this global project, WRC conducted a review of how gender and its intersection with other factors have been integrated by operational agencies and organizations into the Rohingya humanitarian response in Bangladesh, documenting positive practices, lessons learned, and recommendations for the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar and globally.
WRC’s gender operational review found commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment across the Rohingya humanitarian response. A range of strategies has been implemented early in the response targeting women and girls, with a particular focus on responding to and preventing GBV. While not consistently implemented, there is some evidence of positive outcomes from engaging men and boys in these activities, with this group demonstrating a willingness to learn about gender issues, and reducing the risk of backlash within the community.
The change in social norms required to foster Rohingya women’s leadership will require longer-term approaches, driven by the community itself. As such, fledgling women’s groups in the camps and their work for the whole Rohingya community provide promising models for transformative change.
The following recommendations are provided to build on and strengthen the positive efforts already undertaken within the Rohingya humanitarian response, and to catalyze longer-term support for transformative approaches.
• Foster innovation and collective learning on emerging issues and approaches. There are different understandings and interpretations of gender and empowerment among humanitarian actors. As the response moves into more transformative approaches, it is important to also foster collective learning and reflection on successful—and less successful—strategies. Learning events should explore emerging issues and approaches that require wider sectoral reflection, such as how to safely reach and support marginalized women and girls (e.g., older women and women and girls with disabilities) and people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or sex characteristics (SOGIESC). Fledgling civil society organizations within the Rohingya community should be involved and drawn upon for their advice on culturally sensitive gender equality programming.
• Strengthen gender analysis and monitoring processes. Establish a more structured approach to gender analysis, which maps the different groups in the community for consultation, including marginalized groups of women and girls, and men and boys. Gender-transformative indicators, or indicators that measure change in women’s and girls’ agency, should be agreed upon and standardized across program and service monitoring. Ongoing and regular gender analysis can help to track the small, but important, incremental changes in gender equality and women’s empowerment in the community, identify risks, and evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.
• Increase space for women to self-organize. More flexible programming in women’s and girls’ safe spaces could create additional opportunities for women to self-organize and define their own goals and activities. Activities in these spaces could be further expanded to explore wider issues and concerns in the camp, explore their strengths and strategies, and analyze potential solutions. Concurrently, it will be important to establish a process for monitoring the inclusiveness of these activities—tracking which women are and are not participating in these activities.
• Advocate for longer-term programming. Transformative programming should foster social norms change and shared power and decision-making between groups in the community— and this take time. Promoting women’s empowerment, participation, and leadership in a humanitarian context requires more sustained and longer-term programming, not only to demonstrate outcomes, but also to ensure the quality of activities implemented (through capacity development of staff and partners) and that we do no harm. Donors and funders must meet global commitments to gender equality with more meaningful and flexible financial investment and partnership with the Government of Bangladesh, which will give humanitarian partners the time and space to trial different methodologies and approaches.
• Support fledgling women’s civil society organizations. The success and acceptance of fledgling organizations and groups of Rohingya that are forming the camp provide a critical opportunity for learning and innovation across the humanitarian response, particularly in addressing the patriarchal norms that reduce opportunities for women’s leadership and participation in the community. These groups can act as advisors to humanitarian actors on culturally sensitive programming relating to women’s leadership and participation, reducing risk of backlash in the community. They can also mentor other groups of women across the camps as they establish and expand their participation and influence in the camps.