The Lancet – Editorial: The gender plight of humanitarian aid

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The Lancet
Aug 17, 2019 Volume 394Number 10198p541-610, e6-e19
The gender plight of humanitarian aid
The Lancet
World Humanitarian Day, which takes place on Aug 19 each year, celebrates the efforts of humanitarian aid workers operating in war-torn, resource deprived, or disease-affected settings to sustain human life. This year, special tribute is paid to the unsung heroes of humanitarian health—women. Whether they are at the forefront of an international crisis or operating within local communities, their long-lasting and stabilising impact makes them true peace keepers of humanitarian health.

In the past few decades, the number of major attacks on aid workers in hostile environments has soared. According to the Aid Worker Security Report 2019 update published in June by Humanitarian Outcomes, 2018 was the second worst year on record for aid security, with 226 separate attacks involving 405 aid workers, of whom 131 were killed, 144 wounded, and 130 kidnapped. South Sudan continued to surpass Syria and Afghanistan in the number of major attacks on aid workers, which also put the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at risk. The report focused on the variance in risk between male and female aid workers. Men were more likely to be victims of shootings and aerial bombings, whereas women were more likely to be physically attacked, kidnapped, or involved in complex attacks such as bombings. Sexual violence had the highest gender variance, comprising 8% of all attacks on female aid workers since 1997. The report calls for the risk of sexual violence to be re-examined in humanitarian operational security.

Multiple reporting pathways and a higher degree of decision-making autonomy offered to survivors would improve case identification and analysis of security risks and needs. Governments need to recognise the female plight in humanitarian aid. Applying a gender-focused lens to the identification, assessment, and management of the security needs of humanitarian responders is a good place to start. As humanitarians, women are often first to respond in a crisis and they should not be the last to be considered.