Month: April 2021

Month: April 2021

Why Localized Feminist Humanitarian Action is Essential: Learnings from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

April 27, 2021 by Mallika Iyer

In August 2017, the southeastern Bangladesh coastal town of Cox’s Bazar was irreversibly changed when over 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled the Myanmar military’s genocidal campaign in the Rakhine State. The majority of Rohingya refugees live in 34 extremely congested camps with precarious access to food, health care, education, sanitation, livelihood, and shelter.

Rohingya refugee women and girls, most of whom are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, constitute 52 percent of the camp population. Living within these challenging camp conditions means Rohingya women refugees faced further marginalization due to their restricted mobility, access to information, basic services and limited decision-making power within camp management.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, further impacting on the lives of Rohingya refugees. Although humanitarian actors were able to successfully curtail the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the pandemic intensified existing hardships for the refugees, along with the surrounding host communities in Cox’s Bazar. For example, food insecurity and levels of poverty soared dramatically, with poor food consumption scores rising from 5 to 15 percent in the refugee camps and 3 to 8 percent in host communities, meaning the prevalence of hunger increased significantly during this short period.

For the women of Cox’s Bazar, the pandemic exacerbated an already dire situation as the pervasiveness of sexual and gender-based violence and early, forced, and child marriage significantly increased within the refugee camps and host communities. This alarming uplift in gender-based violence followed a global trend coined by the United Nations as the ‘shadow pandemic’.

The lockdown measures imposed by the Bangladeshi government to mitigate the spread of the virus also disrupted critical gender equality programming in humanitarian interventions. Literacy and numeracy classes for women and girls, income generation activities, relief and recovery services for survivors of gender-based violence, psychosocial counselling, and family planning services have all been paused for over a year. Therefore, the pandemic threatened achievements that have been made in the protection of women’s rights and gender equality.

Conditions, particularly for women and girls, further deteriorated following a massive fire which broke out in Camps 8W, 8E and 9 on March 22, 2021, destroying countless homes, learning centers, women and child friendly spaces, and WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities.

The pandemic also fueled tensions between Rohingya refugee and Bangladeshi host communities, exacerbated by long-existing poverty, and unequal access to – and competing demands for – resources and social services. Hate speech and anti-Rohingya rhetoric increased amongst host community members who accused Rohingya refugees of spreading the virus and humanitarian workers of unfairly prioritizing COVID-19 response and recovery operations within the camps.

Within the current context there is an urgent need for localized, feminist humanitarian action which moves beyond meeting basic needs to fostering social cohesion, community resilience, sustainable development, and gender equality. However, current humanitarian interventions do not invest in local women’s groups in Cox’s Bazar, including those led by Rohingya refugee women. Investment in women is essential to strengthen women’s roles as key actors on the frontlines of the crisis and foster a transition to self-reliance.

Most humanitarian decision-making structures remain dominated by international actors and exclusionary to Bangladeshi and Rohingya women and young women peacebuilders and activists. Without the meaningful participation and leadership of women, efforts to address humanitarian crises cannot lead to long-term peace, development and stability or adequately meet the needs of refugee and host community women and girls. Therefore, humanitarian interventions that promote gender equality and invest in the agency and needs of local women and girls are not only necessary—they are urgent and critical.

In 2018, the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), in partnership with the local civil society group Jago Nari Unnayon Sangsta (JNUS), young Bangladeshi women from host communities in the Ramu and Ukhiya upazilas (districts) in Cox’s Bazar to advocate for sustainable peace, women’s rights, and gender equality. The young women have since organized themselves as Young Women Leaders for Peace (YWL) and have conducted peacebuilding and humanitarian activities in Cox’s Bazar. For example, they hold age-appropriate literacy and numeracy classes for 180 Rohingya refugee and host community women and girls, who have since been empowered to sign their names on legal documents, read important signs within the refugee camps, and access important information. Through these literacy and numeracy classes, the young women dispel anti-Rohingya rhetoric and create positive dialogues between the refugee and host communities.  In February 2021, following a year-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the YWL members were able to re-start these classes.

In December 2020, with support from Global Affairs Canada, GNWP and JNUS organized a semi-virtual (see endnote), five-day capacity building Training of Trainers to increase the YWL members’ understanding of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) and Youth, Peace, and Security agendas and enhance their peacebuilding and leadership skills. Covering sessions on areas such as leadership, peacebuilding and literacy and numeracy the workshop gave the Young Women Leaders the necessary knowledge and tools to effectively influence decision-making on peace, security, and humanitarian action and hold decision-makers accountable to their obligations under international law.

Shortly after the workshop several Young Women Leaders from the host communities and Cox’s Bazar refugee camps participated in a closed virtual briefing organized by GNWP on the Rohingya Crisis with policymakers from Bangladesh, Canada, Indonesia, and the Netherlands. The briefing created a space for young women peacebuilders from Bangladesh and Myanmar to present their seldom-heard perspectives including the challenges they confront, their priorities and recommendations, for gender-responsive and localized interventions to the Rohingya Crisis.

Notably, this briefing was one of the few spaces which represented all key stakeholder groups in the Rohingya Crisis. The briefing was created in attempt to solicit greater commitment from the international community to pursue accountability for the genocide as well as other atrocities against the Rohingya people including, sexual violence committed against women and girls.

In addition, GNWP has worked with these Young Women Leaders to help them amplify their voices in local, regional, and global humanitarian coordination mechanisms including the Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group in Cox’s Bazar, the Global Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action, and the Generation Equality Compact on WPS and Humanitarian Action.

The Young Women Leaders urged effective implementation of Bangladesh’s first National Action Plan (NAP) on United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, with a particularly focus on the Rohingya Refugee Crisis in Cox’s Bazar. The NAP serves as an important tool for responding to the gender dynamics of the refugee crisis; its ensures the meaningful participation of both Rohingya and host community women and young women in peace, security, and humanitarian action decision-making; and the investment in the economic security and relief and recovery services for refugee and host community women and girls.

To share their priorities for NAP implementation with a broader audience, the YWL members contributed recommendations to an advocacy brief published by UN Women, in coordination with GNWP, JNUS, and other civil society groups. Launched to coincide with the 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325, the policy brief was disseminated to local and national authorities, the Bangladeshi police, civil society, various UN entities, and the diplomatic community. The YWL members also plan to organize community dialogues with traditional and religious leaders and create media campaigns to raise awareness of the NAP and generate broad-based support for its effective implementation. 

The leadership and determination of Cox’s Bazar’s young women leaders serves as a shining example of the kind of localized, feminist humanitarian action that should be recognized, invested in, and amplified by Member States, UN entities, regional and international NGOs, civil society, academia, and private sector organizations. If we want to ensure that we are building back stronger communities and preventing further outbreaks of conflict, it is imperative that women’s voices are heard in conflict resolution. Without a more inclusive, gender-responsive approach to crisis recovery we risk not building a strong enough foundation for a stable and conflict-free future.

Endnote: Following government guidelines on social distancing, the participants, representatives from JNUS, and several Bangladeshi resource persons, convened in a training venue, wearing face masks and strictly observing proper hygiene. GNWP facilitated the workshop virtually.

The Work Must Go On! Reflection from the Generation Equality Forum in Mexico

April 12, 2021 by Wevyn Muganda, GNWP Cora Weiss Peacebuilding Fellow

Young women are the leaders of today! But we stand on the shoulders of the unrelenting, inspiring women activists that came before us. As a young woman peacebuilder, I am in awe of all of the work done by women’s movements over the decades. Women have been organizing, educating and advocating for their rights, with little recognition and support for their work, for generations. Women have been – and remain – underrepresented in every sphere of life. Their roles are appreciated only when it comes to manual labor and care work in homes and farms, despite our significant contributions in politics and development. Yet, the unyielding commitment and work of women activists achieved important gains. The continued advocacy on gender equality led by women’s movements and activists led to the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) – a comprehensive blueprint on how to ensure women’s freedom and emancipation – at the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference.

The Generation Equality Forum (GEF) in Mexico, which concluded recently with reactivated commitments and a call to accelerate action on gender equality, was the first in a series of commemorations of this critical achievement. The Forum was co-organized by Mexico, France, UN Women, and representatives of civil society and youth. It brought together different actors including civil society organizations, private sector and representatives of Member States. Over three intense days of fully virtual discussions and organizing, we analyzed the progress and gaps in the implementation of BPFA. Since 1995, there have been concerted efforts to ensure that women in every part of the world are free to enjoy their rights and access equal opportunities. However, critical gaps remain, and our gains are fragile. Looking back to 1995, and the three days of the Generation Equality Forum in Mexico, there is so much to reflect on regarding the progress made in achieving gender equality.

To me, the GEF in Mexico was empowering and informative. What struck me first was the intergenerationality and intersectionality of the Forum. With the public, virtual platform for discussion available to everyone in multiple languages, more women groups could participate in the virtual interactions. The virtual convening has made it possible for thousands of young women and women who may not have had the resources or an opportunity to travel to Mexico to attend. This means that there were more diverse and authentic voices in the Forum. Young women and women of diverse identities and cultures gave accounts of their experience and perspectives on the BPFA, and the challenges they face in making it a reality. Critically, they made concrete recommendations to policy-makers and other actors, which was very inspiring. I particularly remember the remarks by Hajer Sharief, a young woman peacebuilder from Libya during the plenary session on Women’s Leadership. She reiterated the need to embrace intersectionality to ensure more feminist leadership.  However, the virtual space also left out many young women peacebuilders with limited to no access to the internet, highlighting the increasing digital divide and the obstacle it sets to women’s participation and gender equality.

At a time when women have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, a feminist global COVID-19 recovery plan is needed to ensure that no more women are left behind. The GEF, through its 6 Action Coalitions and Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action, seeks to address the urgent areas of concern for women across six thematic areas. These are: Gender based violence, Economic Justice and Rights, Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Feminist Action for Climate Justice, Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality, Feminists Movement and Leadership and the Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action. The impact of COVID-19 has been a recurring thread through all the discussions during the Forum. Realizing the priorities included in each of these critical areas is the necessary cornerstone of an effective, feminist and sustainable response to the pandemic. However, this requires stronger commitment to gender equality, inclusion, and truly transformative action.

One critical recommendations that came out from the discussions at the Mexico GEF included: meaningful inclusion of young girls, grassroots women, Indigenous people, Afro-descendants, women with HIV, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA+) persons in decision-making, including on COVID-19 response, humanitarian action, and the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Another key issue raised was the need to transform the global economic system, so that women have equal opportunities at making income and sustaining their lives. Other recommendations included: soliciting support from male gender equality allies, especially those in positions of power, who can be champions of gender equality; financing women activists and movements and ensuring their protection; and investing in women’s leadership and participation in national COVID-19 recovery plans.

As a peace activist, I have followed in particular the discussions around the Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action (WPS-HA) – a multistakeholder entity designed to drive implementation of existing commitments by different stakeholders on gender equality. The Compact’s work is focused on delivering tangible results in the following five priority issues: 1) women’s meaningful participation in peace processes; 2) financing the WPS agenda and gender equality in humanitarian programming; 3) women’s economic security; 4) women’s leadership and agency across the peace, security and humanitarian sectors; and, 5) protection of women in conflict and crisis contexts including women human right defenders. During the GEF, Amani Aruri, a member of the Beijing+25 Youth Task Force expressed how pleased she was at the way young people have been involved in the Compact’s work so far, noting that young women are not merely beneficiaries, but are co-leading this global process. I am proud to be part of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, who – as a board member of the Compact – has contributed to its inclusivity, by holding consultative workshops with over 100 local women and youth peacebuilders on the concrete actions the Compact can take to achieve its objectives. Strong synergies and coordination between the 6 Action Coalitions and the Compact are necessary to the achievement of the 5-year global acceleration plan for gender equality, which was presented during the GEF in Mexico.

Another highlight of the GEF in Mexico, to me, was the adoption of the Young Feminist Manifesto. The engagement of young women in the GEF process so far has not been as productive as young women expect. Particularly, there has been a lack of understanding of what intergenerational and intersectional youth leadership should look like. The Young Feminist Manifesto seeks to address this gap to ensure more meaningful involvement of young women in the GEF moving forward. The manifesto includes recommendations to the GEF organizers on co-leadership and co-ownership, accountability, substantive and meaningful youth participation, funding and resourcing and capacity strengthening. It also makes recommendations to the leadership of the Action Coalitions and the GEF in Mexico and France on co-organizing and co-leading sessions to ensure young women are not tokenized, but rather included as equal partners in the process.

The GEF was another wake up call for leaders and an opportunity to amplify the voices and demands of women leaders. Various commitments and actions have been discussed. However, none of them can be implemented without adequate financing. Member States and donors need to be deliberate in their funding decisions to ensure that they are supporting initiatives and programmes that continue to move gender equality forward. The pandemic has proven that we are one crisis away from losing the gains women’s movements have made in their work towards gender equality. This calls for more sustainable approaches to addressing the challenges women experience. We all have a role to play in implementing these commitments, and an even bigger role in holding duty bearers accountable for the inadequate or lack of implementation of the BPFA, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and other international laws and policies related to women’s rights and gender equality.

Achieving gender equality requires changing our perceptions and cultural and social norms, and creating more opportunities for women’s freedom and emancipation. But it is possible. And so, the challenge is on all of us. Particularly to young women and women across the world, in the words of Hajer Sharief, I ask: “Why are we accepting decision-making processes that don’t look like us?”

Indeed, the work must go on. Freedom for women is freedom for all!