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How the humanitarian aid system can learn from the women and girls it promised to serve
Last week VOICE released our landmark We Must Do Better report and we wanted to ensure you were connected to the report and our campaign. This report provides a first attempt at a global feminist assessment of the experiences of women and girls, and the organizations they lead, during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study provided a platform for 200 feminist organizations and individual women and girls in 41 countries to share their experiences during the pandemic, and to take stock of their many needs that have not been met. VOICE is accelerating a global revolution against systemic violence powered by women and girls and the organizations they lead. The report illustrates how the humanitarian system has failed women and girls and their organizations, in spite of its many commitments. 

We looked at how gender inequalities manifest in crisis; what impact lockdowns and economic downturns have on women and girls; and the relationship between the pandemic and the violence they face. This research recognizes the dual aspects of women’s lives––that women in leadership are not living ‘outside’ the dynamics they are trying to change, and they are often situated much like the women they serve.

We knew before this pandemic that there was a shocking lack of commitment to women’s organizations and to addressing violence against women and girls, we see have seen this time after time, emergency after emergency. There was a moment when we thought this crisis was going to be different, but We Must Do Better shows that the humanitarian community has yet again failed most of the organizations we spoke to that have not been able to find supportive donors. Many reported donors reducing or cancelling their grants, while others noted difficulty in getting donor funds transferred, due to bank closures. For some, the changes in funding have been catastrophic.

This week I was honored to hold space with some amazing women’s leaders during a VOICE/UNICEF Webinar, where we had a real conversation about the day-to-day challenges that they face as leaders in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. We heard how women of all ages face unprecedented threat due to new forces such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as from archaic institutions such as the aid industry. They told us how they want to be partnered with through donor agreements and otherwise.

I left the conversation more inspired than ever to keep shining a light on the humanitarian aid sector which, despite its commitments to crisis-affected populations—denies women and girls their rights to participation, consultation, and services, and in some cases subjects them to its own types of violence. We are re-imagining an aid system that is designed and led by the same women and girls it serves. Take action now and join us in building it!
Mendy Marsh
Executive Director and Co-founder


VOICE and UNICEF created space for local women's groups to have their voices heard to help set priorities and influence decision-making within the humanitarian system. The conversation centered on findings from the VOICE We Must Do Better research, along with insight from local women leaders.

The five main, specific points panelists spoke about were:
1) The operational difficulties of accessing resources to provide services to their organizations and communities.
2) The rise in domestic violence and decline in women's ability to connect to their safe spaces and support networks due to lack of funding and government and police-mandated lockdowns.
3) How patriarchal systems continue to undermine the autonomous rights of women around the world.
4) How despite the structural discrimination of funding women's organizations, they have been at the frontline of the COVID response to provide women in their communities with medical attention and isolation centers for recovery.
5) The need for donors and officials to "build back better" the public health and humanitarian responses with an emphasis on the unique needs of women, and with recognition of the vital importance of women's local organizations.

Megan Gilgan is the Acting Director of the Public Partnerships Division of UNICEF, working with Governments, International Financial Institutions and Global Programme Partnerships to mobilize and leverage resources for children world-wide. 

Sharanya Sekaram identifies as a feminist writer, researcher, and activist based in Sri Lanka. She is passionate about the democratization of information and resources, as well as access to networks and spaces. 

Mariam Aliyu, Executive Director of the Learning Through Skills Acquisition Initiative (LETSAI) based in Northern Nigeria, is a medical radiographer by profession, an EVAWG Advocate by passion, and a Social development advocate by mission.

Bella Matambanadzo is a feminist activist and writer from Zimbabwe. She works with feminist and women’s rights groups to conceptualize, create and implement their diverse strategies for success.

Suraya Pakzad, one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2009, is the founder of Voice of Women Organization (VWO) in Afghanistan. Growing up during the years of armed resistance against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, she set up covert schools for girls under the oppressive rule of Taliban.

Heather Cole, one of VOICE's lead researchers on We Must Do Better, is a feminist community worker with a deep commitment to anti-oppressive values and practices.

Mendy Marsh, Executive Director at VOICE, is an expert in addressing violence against women and girls, as well as promoting their leadership and expertise in humanitarian response work.


The gendered impacts of COVID-19 have come as no surprise for feminist activists, advocates, and humanitarian practitioners worldwide. Recent epidemics and pandemics, including SARS, Ebola, and Zika, demonstrated the need for a critical examination of the gender aspects of health emergencies and provided us with a valuable framework to begin to unpack these in the context of COVID-19. Previous research and experiences have shown that outbreaks affect women and men differently, often intensifying existing gender inequalities and their interdependence with class and race for women and girls (VOICE, 2021). 

In particular, during the West African Ebola outbreak from 2014-2016, gender issues were overlooked entirely during the emergency response and the long-term planning - for instance, data disaggregated by sex was insufficient and gender indicators were not included - showing a complete male bias in the humanitarian response as a whole (Harman, 2016; Smith, 2019). Not surprisingly, lessons from the Ebola outbreak were not applied during the 2016 Zika epidemic, revealing an apparent disconnection between global health governance and the people affected by these health crises, especially women and girls (Davies and Bennett, 2016). Despite the multiple opportunities to integrate past experiences into effective crisis response, women and girls have found themselves again situated within the COVID-19 pandemic, with its response in ways determined through traditional gender expectations at every level: local, national, regional, and global. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant a push back on equality for women in many scenarios, regressing on the recent strides towards equal access to resources, education and independence (VOICE, 2021). 

In her book The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire, Cynthia Enloe declares that ‘later is a patriarchal time zone’ (2004). The humanitarian industry has manufactured the notion of ‘urgency’ around hegemonic patriarchal constructions, which leaves aside fundamental feminist concerns that seem to always come for ‘later’ (Watson and Mason). Her assessment suggests that structural gender inequalities are regarded as less important, always in addition to the universalized needs of men being seen as neutral.

VOICE’s We Must Do Better research aims to shed light on unexamined issues around women and girls’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for immediate action to truly integrate women and girls’ concerns into the humanitarian and Disaster Risk Reduction agenda. We have more than 20 years of significant insights around the gendered dimensions of disasters, yet they are consistently ignored by the humanitarian system. Incorporating women and girls’ needs are not only about enhancing the effectiveness of humanitarian responses, they are also about JUSTICE. 

COVID-19 will not be the world's last public health emergency, so here at VOICE, we ask ourselves, what is the humanitarian sector waiting for?

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