Celebrating the role of women in humanitarianism
Who is a humanitarian? Anyone who loves humanity can be called a humanitarian, but in modern times the term has evolved to describe people who will even risk their lives to save others, often without any form of payment or incentive. While the term humanitarian usually involves helping people in distress, there are plenty of people like the famous ‘Cat Man of Aleppo’ who help animals facing the same predicaments – they are no less humanitarian.
It is important to recognize the fact that there are individuals and organisations who take great risks to help others in times of war, famine, disease, natural or man-made disasters and environmental crisis, among other things. Their work and lives are worth celebrating, for the world will be an even more dangerous place if humanitarians do not step in. Increasingly, women are becoming more active in the field of humanitarianism.
Indeed, the United Nations has designated today (August 19) as the World Humanitarian Day. World Humanitarian Day is dedicated to recognizing the work of humanitarian personnel and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes. International days like this are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity.
The origins of the World Humanitarian Day can be traced to a very dark incident in UN history. On August 19, 2003, a terrorist attack hit the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people. Among those who lost their lives was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s top representative in Iraq. Five years later, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution designating August 19 as World Humanitarian Day. Every year since then, the humanitarian community has organised global campaigns to commemorate WHD, advocating for the safety and security of humanitarian aid workers, and for the survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by crises.
This year, the world is honouring women humanitarians who work in crises-ridden areas throughout the world under the tag #womenhumanitarians. The focus will be on the unsung heroes who have long been working on the front lines in their own communities in some of the most difficult terrains, from the war-wounded in Afghanistan, to the food insecure in the Sahel, to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods in places such as Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Syria is a particularly horrendous example that shows the conditions under which humanitarians work - An estimated 4 million people are currently still living in the north-western part of the Syrian Arab Republic, which after 8 years of war is the one of the worst-affected regions. Civilians face daily bombardments, shelling and other forms of violence. Health facilities are frequently the focus of attacks. And the UN Member States will salute the efforts of women aid workers from across the world, who rally to people in need.
Female strength, power and perseverance
In fact, women make up a large number of those who risk their own lives to save others. “Women humanitarians dedicate their lives to helping people affected by crises. They are often the first to respond and the last to leave. These women deserve to be celebrated. They are needed today as much as ever to strengthen the global humanitarian response. And world leaders as well as non-state actors must ensure that they – and all humanitarians – are guaranteed the protection afforded to them under international law,” says the UN in a statement issued to mark the World Humanitarian Day. Women Humanitarians hold a sense of unparalleled uniqueness, one that adds to the global momentum of female strength, power and perseverance. This year’s campaign on Women Humanitarians supports the recognition that women deserve in the strengthening of global humanitarian response as well as in protection efforts under the international law.
Women and girls are particularly vulnerable during emergencies and often bear the brunt of the impact of forced displacement. Evidence tells us that issues such as gender-based violence (which includes sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, child marriage, abduction, and female genital mutilation) spike quickly during crises and remain at extremely high levels throughout. Meanwhile in protracted emergencies access to services can be hugely restricted. That means girls don’t get an education, and women don’t have the opportunity to access decent and safe work. Emergencies cause immense suffering for millions of people – usually the world’s poorest, most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. Humanitarian aid workers, including health care workers, strive to provide life-saving assistance and long term rehabilitation to disaster-affected communities, regardless of where they are in the world and without discrimination based on nationality, social group, religion, sex, race or any other factor.
Stories of personal sacrifice
Together we fight for those who have been forgotten, whose rights have been violated, and whose pleas for help have been ignored. As we celebrate the role of women humanitarians with uplifting stories of personal sacrifice and collective resilience, let us not lose sight of how much more there is still to do before we can say that we truly honour these women.
Whether it’s the scarce resources to tackle the epidemic of gender-based violence; the “Global Gag Rule” designed to restrict sexual and reproductive health services; the poor provision of transformative programmes such as education and livelihoods; the slow progress to end sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse; or the pittance of funding that finds its way to local women’s organisations, we have seen the gap between rhetoric and reality widen in recent years when it comes to women and girls living in crises. This gap cannot stand, we cannot continue to fail women by letting global action stop at words alone.”
This letter indicates the challenges faced by women in distress and the women who help them regardless of the risk to their very lives. The working conditions for women humanitarian workers are becoming increasingly dangerous. This means that the basic principles of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions are more relevant than ever, 70 years after they were passed. One of the most important rules is that humanitarian workers and civilians should not be made the target of attacks, and that there should be criminal penalties when this rule is breached. There were more than 400 acts of violence against humanitarian aid workers in 2018, causing 131 fatalities. According to this year’s Aid Worker Security Report, most attacks took place in South Sudan. These words are especially significant given that the world will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on Women which was a landmark at the time.
Here in Sri Lanka, we are no strangers to the concept of humanitarianism, as helping others is an intrinsic part of our lives. We saw how the entire country came together to help the victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Even in the current spell of bad weather, there were reports of good samaritans saving those in distress. Indeed, women in Sri Lanka have been playing the role of humanitarians for centuries. But there is perhaps a need to more formally organise the humanitarian sector in the country.