A teenage girl in a purple head scarf smiles and looks into the camera.

Kulsum* is a 16-year-old Rohingya girl who lives with her mother and siblings in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. She wants to learn and go to school so she can be an independent woman in the future.

The Impact of Aid Agencies’ Practices on Gender Equality

By: Nina Gora, Head of Gender Equality in Humanitarian, Save the Children International

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of just nine women in her Harvard Law School class of over 550 students, at a time when women weren’t seen as having a great deal of value or contribution outside of the kitchen. Yet, despite prevailing norms and attitudes that devalued women’s worth and work, she went on to become a United States Supreme Court justice. She was, in short, enabled to reach her potential and as a result, went on to transform laws and lives by advancing gender equality.

Stepping into Dadaab Camp in Kenya or into an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in North East Syria or Somalia, there are girls who have the potential to grow into someone of the very same caliber, same influence and with the capacity to transform. Congresswoman Ilhan Abdullahi Omar is a case in point. She spent four years in Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya. Her potential was realized and now she is a force for good. Congresswoman Omar, however, is the exception, not the rule.

The reality is that the potential of girls living in conflict or fragile contexts is squandered every day, because they lack support and resources at best and are held back at worst. This is often most visceral when a girl is married as a child, often to a man she does not choose or when a girl cannot access sexual and reproductive health services, which can lead to unwanted pregnancy. Or every time she cannot go to school or study because she is doing household chores or domestic care-work instead. But it’s also evident in more subtle, insidious ways.

The culprits of the more subtle barriers are, in part, us. This is a hard thing to say, but worth recognizing, to then address. We know – from countless gender analyses that girls face unique barriers in accessing services and participating in public life. It is therefore incumbent on us to take proactive measures to remove those barriers. But when aid agencies fail to distribute menstrual hygiene items as part of distributions, we in effect render girls trapped inside their homes/accommodation and unable to access school or other services.

When we establish mixed-sex services or spaces we often exclude girls when they are at highest risk of marriage and therefore need to be seen and heard.  When we build a school or a health clinic without paying attention to where the risks of gender-based violence are, and therefore expose a girl to rape on her way there, or expose a girl to sexual exploitation and abuse when the majority of staff in our schools or hospitals are male.

We unknowingly also reinforce those very gender inequalities which hold girls back, through reducing or even eliminating their voice. This includes the insidious use of the term “head of household” as a synonym for the man in the house, which negates the power and voice of the women in the house. It also includes consulting village leaders – often non-elected and almost always men – to provide insights and information on behalf of women and girls, rendering them invisible. It includes providing reporting mechanisms that rely on access to phones and credit, which girls might not have. It includes targeting men in the family with cash assistance, or food assistance, and it includes recruiting majority male field teams.

All these acts give communities one clear message – that a woman and girl is worth less.

There is progress in how aid agencies now talk and behave. Save the Children is advancing internal initiatives to recruit, retain and promote women in our humanitarian response teams, prioritizing the establishment of Girl Friendly Spaces in humanitarian settings, and implementing a set of 15 Humanitarian Gender and Gender-Based Violence Minimum Actions in all our priority responses.

More girls are now present and speaking at high-level events with decision-makers. In the last few weeks alone, girls have spoken at the high-level follow up to the 2019 Oslo Pledging Conference on SGBV, at the GBV Call to Action 2021- 2025 Road Map Launch and other high-level UN General Assembly events related to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. We are providing girls access to platforms, and this is important.

Now we need to start handing over power and truly implement the localization agenda, by providing consistent funding to girl and women-led organizations and initiatives so that these girls’ ideas and potential are realized.

It is time for those of us working inside international organizations to fight for more feminist practices, and hand over more funding and therefore power to women and girls, in turn enabling those girls in Somalia, Syria and Sudan to fight for their futures. It is time to make an RBG of us all. 

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