AlertNet Op-ed: Haiti- Now is the time to work on gender issues

Source: AlertNet

This is an op-ed by Ross Mountain, director general of DARA, an organisation that focuses on improving the quality and effectiveness of aid

We all know that women and girls living in areas of armed conflict and disaster suffer the worst consequences of crises due to their heightened vulnerability. We also know dozens of initiatives, conferences, reports, and guidelines have been elaborated with the aim of mainstreaming gender-sensitive approaches in responses to humanitarian crises.  Why then does our field research in crises such as Haiti offer such a bleak perspective on gender as a priority for all humanitarian actors?

This year we visited 9 crises in the compilation of the 2011 Humanitarian Response Index (HRI) and found that too often the specific needs of women and girls were being inadequately taken into account by humanitarian agencies both in the immediate response and in long term-recovery efforts, despite acceptance of the principle that aid should be non-discriminatory and based on needs.

Haiti is a glaring example. Despite the generous international response to the earthquake, the fielding of personnel from UN Women, and the lessons that should have been learned from the Tsunami and other similar experiences, gender issues in Haiti remain prominently and specifically unaddressed, exacerbating the already extremely difficult situation of women and girls there.  Sexual and gender based violence remains rife-  in a study by New York University in March 2011 14% of respondents reported that, since the earthquake, one or more members of their household had been victimized by either rape or unwanted touching or both.

Initially, gender issues were identified as a priority for the response with various initiatives being launched. However, an evaluation carried out by OCHA found that the achievements of the first three months were lost through lack of follow up.

Our interviews with key humanitarian actors in Port-au-Prince unfortunately confirmed this impression. The answers to our question on how gender needs have been addressed in Haiti since the earthquake were almost always vague and perfunctory, and in many occasions pessimistic. Some actors claim that gender was not a priority in Haiti due to the urgency of the moment.  The “we will take care of this when we can” soon became the current “we should be working on it, but…“. Very few of those interviewed by the HRI team were able to respond concretely and provide specific examples of effective work around gender.

So how can we explain this lack of effective prioritisation of gender in Haiti?

Several humanitarian organisations told us donor governments generally did not really monitor if the organisations they support fully integrate a gender component in their programmes. “You can copy and paste the same paragraph in the gender section of every proposal and nobody complains“. As in other crises, gender in Haiti is relegated to an element that donors like seeing in funding proposals but sadly is rarely implemented or monitored in practice.

But this is not the whole picture. A cross-cutting theme like gender needs special attention and coordination- and as other reviews have found, coordination was not especially efficient in Haiti. If members of a programming cluster like health do not know what those in, say, the shelter cluster are up to, they will hardly be able to effectively address the gender dimensions. It also requires accurate needs assessments, and most would agree that needs data was not adequately disaggregated in Haiti.

Maybe part of the explanation lies in something far more simple. The humanitarian system is still overwhelmingly male dominated. While there has been some improvement in recent years, field research for the HRI 2010 showed significantly more male than female respondents in its survey sample of senior humanitarian staff (64 percent and 36 percent respectively). The masculinisation or gender bias of the system, especially at the decision-makers level, has been pointed to as one of the reasons why women’s needs are regularly poorly addressed in crises.

Today Haiti is caught between the emergency phase- where there is supposedly no time to differentiate gender- and rehabilitation- where absent a clear strategy to address gender, funds are not allocated.  Both donors and NGOs blame each other, citing lack of prioritisation, knowledge and capacity, but in fact, the blame is shared.

Granted, further investment in tools, capacity-building and training in gender issues may be required. But the current scenario is not coherent with what is already known and what should already be done. Can there be any excuse for gender to be systematically left on the sidelines of humanitarian interventions? Surely not at this stage.

Donors have a key role in improving the quality and effectiveness of aid efforts for all affected populations- women and girls, men and boys- and can take specific steps for a more gender-sensitive approach in responses to crises. Requiring sex and age disaggregated data, and a gender analysis in needs assessments is a first step, but this must go beyond a simple data collection exercise to become the fundamental tool for determining how to prioritise interventions based on different needs. And actively promoting women’s participation in all stages of programming and verifying that the response is actually adapted to the different population groups is a good place to start.