In times of natural disasters or armed conflict, humanitarian aid in the form of food and shelter is delivered mainly by UN agencies or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to affected communities.
By and large, international agencies insist on having women play a major role in identifying needs and managing the distribution of such aid.
Experience has shown that women know better the needs of their individual communities and they are better at ensuring transparency in the delivery process.
Women’s groups are usually formed to take on roles such as managing water supply (from pumps provided by the donor) and ensuring equitable distribution of food.
This strategy has resulted in an unintended, yet wonderful, consequence: the empowerment of women.
Humanitarian workers can’t change cultures but, in this case, one cannot deny that they have played a significant role in shaping local practices and outcomes.
In my experience, this is perhaps most evident in Afghanistan where aid has been flowing to for decades.
This has boosted the confidence and skills sets of women’s groups. I believe they are now the backbone of the many acts of defiance against the oppressive Taliban and its repressive tactics.
Up close and personal with gender inequality
I would like to share three personal experiences of working with women in the field: a disheartening but eye-opening episode, the promise of a new beginning and lastly a happy ending.
The first was during a visit to a Rohingya settlement in northern Myanmar around 2007.
The Rohingyas were forced to live in designated areas and their movements were restricted.
After a meeting with the leaders of the community, all of whom were men, I asked if I could speak with the women separately given that their needs were often overlooked.
One of the leaders said I could meet his wife, but I could only speak with her through a window with the curtains drawn.
I could hardly hear her so I asked if I could enter the house or for her to step outside. This was flatly denied.
As I was leaving, the community leader reminded me to raise the issue of their freedom of movement with the Myanmar government given that the men needed to look for some income.
The double standard and hypocrisy displayed was mind blowing! I asked spontaneously “what about your wife’s freedom of movement”. That ended our conversation.
We just stared at each other across a chasm of cultural differences.
Understanding local customs
On a visit to an embroidery weaving project in Afghanistan, I found a major flaw.
The objective was to generate income by selling what they had woven, but everyone was making the same thing for which there was no market.
I proposed that we close the project or switch to something else but the women protested.
They later visited me at my hotel to explain to me that there was no way their husbands would allow them to leave home for a few hours a day without an excuse.
The embroidery project was secondary; they needed the solidarity with other women to share experiences and information of family life, their children’s health and nutrition needs, cooking lessons and dealing with over-assertive husbands!
Ok, I got it. I agreed to keep their embroidery project and everyone left happy. Sometimes economic viability is not everything when it comes to extreme cases of women’s oppression, I concluded.
A rare success
The genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, during which close to a million Tutsis were massacred by mainly Hutu groups, also spilled over to neighbouring Burundi.
It would be a decade later before the civil war ended and peace finally returned.
As people started to rebuild their lives, my organisation provided start-up capital for a project to help women generate income through a fish processing and drying enterprise.
The community lived on the shores of Lake Tanganyika which was a huge fishing ground, and dried fish was not only a delicacy but also an important source of protein.
On a visit to this little community, I observed a buzz of activity around the lake. The fishermen were hauling in the day’s catch and the women were sorting out the fish to be dried in the sun.
Another group was packing dried fish in plastic bags, while others were loading them into small trucks to be transported to the towns and cities.
The women were the busiest but they were also overjoyed with the result of their effort.
They told me how the money had changed their lives, their children were going to school, they had clean clothes and shoes and finally, everyone was leading a dignified life.
I thought to myself: once empowered, there is surely no turning back!
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.