Every year World Humanitarian Day is a tribute to the humanitarian workers who risk their lives in the service of millions of women, men, boys and girls caught up in crisis. UN Women is proud of our staff, and the staff of our partners, who are working across the world in humanitarian crises; both protracted, such as those around Syria or Lake Chad, and more sudden, such as the landslides and rains currently affecting Sierra Leone.
This year we are focusing on the issue of civilians trapped in situations of conflict. UN Women fully supports the UN’s #NotATarget campaign, and we demand again, as mandated by international humanitarian law, that civilians not be a target of armed conflict. They should not pay the price of warring parties whose interests are not theirs. Yet we know the reality is that it is indeed civilians who are often the primary targets of today’s wars, and that this is the single largest driver of humanitarian crises.
These violations of international humanitarian law have generated a global protection crisis. The impact on civilians is devastating, with bombs and rockets destroying schools, hospitals, markets and places of worship. Children are pulled from the rubble of their homes. Every day, young girls are increasingly exposed to early and forced marriage and young boys are forcibly recruited into armed groups. Sexual and gender-based violence continue to shatter lives and undermine community cohesion.
This is particularly true for women and girls. Some sixty per cent of preventable maternal deaths take place in conflict, displacement or natural disaster settings; girls are two and a half times more likely to be out of school in conflict countries; and a reported one in five refugee or displaced women experience sexual violence, with the actual numbers potentially much higher. Crises also dramatically increase the number of women who support their families alone: in Yemen, the proportion of female-headed households has jumped from nine to thirty per cent during the current crisis. By any metric, gender equality must be an urgent priority in humanitarian action. But we are not there yet. In 2014 only four per cent of projects in UN inter-agency appeals were targeted at women and girls, and just one per cent of funding to fragile states went to women’s groups or women’s ministries.
Women and girls represent our greatest untapped resource in humanitarian response. Women are the leaders in their families, communities and societies who drive effective responses to crisis. When supported to play this leadership role, they are the true humanitarian actors, protecting children, the sick, the elderly and other vulnerable groups far more effectively than any international organization can. And it is women and girls who have insights into what is needed and what works, which must inform effective humanitarian response.
On World Humanitarian Day, we must come together to change the status quo—for women and girls, and for all civilians caught up in crises.