By Amanda Klassen

March 8th, 2020 marks the 55th year that International Women’s Day (IWD) has been celebrated around the world. This year the IWD theme is #EachforEqual, an equal world is an enabled world which highlights the difference that individuals can make. IWD is an opportunity to celebrate the many amazing accomplishments of women around the world but is also a time to reflect on the continued challenges that women face in their day to day lives due to prevailing gender inequality. Achieving gender equality across all sectors and issue areas is crucial for improving economies and communities around the world. [1]  

While the themes of IWD tend to be applied to reaching “gender parity” in an economic sense, they also highlight the need for achieving equality as a mechanism for improving circumstances for women living in specific vulnerable contexts. In many societies around the world women face discrimination and violence in their every day lives, this becomes even more pronounced in times of displacement. At present, there are over 70 million people who have been forcibly displaced around the world, and this number continues to grow. Women make up fifty percent of refugee, stateless and internally displaced populations, but are largely the most vulnerable in these situations. [2]  One of the most prevalent issues in any displacement setting is the high levels of sexual and gender-based violence that are often linked to cultural barrierslack of access to safe reporting and legal mechanisms, and to situational factors such as over-crowding, lack of privacy, unsafe shelters and inadequate WASH facilities. [3] Achieving women’s equality would help to mitigate some of these challenges and ensure that better protection mechanisms can be put into place by giving women access to decision making forums. 

One of the many ways that humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) seeks to address gender inequality and protection is through the use of gender mainstreaming policies and approaches. The Women’s Refugee Commission argues that gender equality programming in humanitarian situations has been proven to increase access to services for women, increase participation and agency in decision making, and to decrease incidences of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). [4] Yet, in many cases, these kinds of policies are difficult to implement properly in humanitarian settings. 

Some critics of gender mainstreaming policies argue that Western conceptualizations of gender equality and gender mainstreaming often operate under assumptions of the third world “other”. In emergency and humanitarian contexts power and structural inequalities are reinforced as Western aid agencies bestow equality upon the oppressed other. [5] To support this argument, evidence from humanitarian contexts such as Cambodia have demonstrated that Western approaches to gender mainstreaming are not effective. The most successful initiatives will take cultural context and norms into consideration, and engage with local religious leaders and community organizations to find appropriate solutions.[6]  Michau et al. (2015) argue that programs which attempt to reach only one group of people, or that do not include community-based groups will likely run into challenges, and that it is necessary to tackle issues broadly. This can be done using programming that is holistic in its approach so as to both offer support for those who have been victims of SGBV, but also to address the structural inequalities that perpetuate SGBV. [7] Thus, while it is imperative to incorporate gender-sensitive policies and programming into humanitarian and refugee contexts, it is also necessary to ensure that they are culturally and contextually responsive to ensure success. While the most important goals are to eliminate SGBV and to lead to gender equality; the mechanisms for achieving this goal involve ensuring that women are empowered, and equally able to express their agency and participate in decision making processes. 

The theme of IWD 2020 asks us to consider how an equal world will be an enabled world; how women’s equality can lead to empowerment, protection, and a better future for all; and how individuals have the power to make the most difference. In the case of humanitarian emergencies, ensuring the input of refugee women is crucial for achieving equality and empowerment. The distinct way that refugee women interact with the multitude of power structures in urban, camp and other displacement settings make them uniquely qualified to understand what appropriate solutions are, and how success is measured. [8] Giving the voices of refugee women equal time in decision making forums will lead to better success of humanitarian programming, and to finding long-lasting and durable solutions for their plight. 

Bartolomei, Linda, and Eileen Pittaway. “Refugee Women and Girls: Key to The Global Compact on Refugees; Notes on Project Methodology: Reciprocal Research through Community Consultation,” 2018. 

DFID. “Bangladesh Sexual and Gender Based Violence Assessment,” no. November (2017): 3–6. 

Eisenbruch, Maurice. “Violence Against Women in Cambodia: Towards a Culturally Responsive Theory of Change.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 42, no. 2 (2018): 350–70. 

Karen Women’s Organization. “Salt in the Wound,” 2013. 

Michau, Lori, Jessica Horn, Amy Bank, Mallika Dutt, and Cathy Zimmerman. “Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls: Lessons from Practice.” The Lancet 385, no. 9978 (2015): 1672–84. 

Olivius, Elisabeth. “Constructing Humanitarian Selves and Refugee Others.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 18, no. 2 (2016): 270–90. 

“Sites of Repression and Resistance: Political Space in Refugee Camps in Thailand.” Critical Asian Studies 49, no. 3 (2017): 289–307. 

Strategic Executive Group. “2019 Joint Response Plan for Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis,” 2019. 

Thackeray, David. “The Theme of International Women’s Day 2020, Explained.” World Economic Forum, 2020. 

UNHCR. “Figures at a Glance.” Statistical Yearbooks, 2020. 

Women’s Refugee Commission. “”We Need to Write Our Own Names”: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in the Rohingya Humanitarian Response in Cox’s Bazar,” 2019.