Elhadj As Sy
Date: Tuesday, 7 March, 2017

International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate diversity, and to reaffirm that equality matters, not only today, but every single day of the year. It’s also a chance to honestly reflect on a reality: equality may be our goal, but it is far from our reality.

There is a truism in the humanitarian sector that “disasters do not discriminate.” Those of us involved in emergency response know that this is not always true. While disasters may not cause discrimination, they do worsen it. Women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disaster. More than half of those killed during the 2004 Tsunami were either very young or very old. Existing inequalities between the sexes are exacerbated during crises.

We see similar trends when it comes to gender-based violence, and when it comes to maternal, newborn and child health. More than 50 per cent of all preventable maternal deaths globally occur in complex settings – in areas affected by protracted crises, humanitarian disasters and in populations beyond government reach, in places we often refer to as the “last mile”.

We need to work together to put the last mile first. Actively reaching out to these populations that have, for so long, been beyond the reach of the simple services that can save lives, mothers’ lives. Every day, 830 mothers die in childbirth. Most of these deaths are preventable. When mothers die, children die as well. A child whose mother dies giving birth is 10 times more likely to die before reaching the age of five than a child whose mother survives and is able to fully care for them.

Today is therefore a chance to reflect – candidly – on the deadly and devastating gaps that exist between men and women in humanitarian settings.

In recent years, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has invested heavily in tackling these challenges, in finding ways to more effectively and more expansively address gender and diversity issues in our work.

In December 2015, the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent saw States and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopt a ground-breaking Resolution on “Sexual and gender-based violence: Joint action on prevention and response.” This has been followed up by training courses on gender and diversity in programming that are designed to support local responders to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.

We have also developed Minimum Standard Commitments on Gender and Diversity in Emergency Response, which is available in a range of languages and is, again, designed to translate high level commitments into concrete actions that can make a real difference at the local level.

These are examples of progress. But they are a beginning, not an end. Protecting women and children must be a central, inescapable component of the lifesaving interventions we launch following a disaster or a crisis. It is not an afterthought. It should stand alongside shelter, health, water and sanitation and other areas of support.

All organizations – all individuals – involved in humanitarian response need to critically reflect on how their work actively contributes to strengthening gender equality, and to addressing the horrible consequences of inequality.

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Elhadj As Sy is the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.