During times of crisis – if women have the opportunity to mobilise together – they will lead on many parts of the response, including facets that may have previously been ignored, like women’s safety. They will put their families and the wider community at the heart of the work that needs to be done: the food and water that needs to be sourced, the security and shelter required, and the long-term recovery effort that can see communities re-stablished to better prepare for such disasters in the future.
Indeed, often it’s the very resilience of women that will enable them to step up during times of crisis. And often then it’s the leadership role they’ve taken during times of crisis that enables them to continue to have a voice long after the immediate humanitarian response.
I learnt this first hand from two women who’ve responded to two very different crises that affected their communities on opposite sides of the world: Korto Williams who led a women’s response to the Ebola crisis in Libera, and Flora Vano, who is continuing to coordinate a women’s response to recovery efforts following Cyclone Pam, which struck Vanuatu in 2015.
Both were in Australia last week for the launch of ActionAid’s Arise, a new fund aiming to empower women to respond and prepare for humanitarian disasters.
Korto said that having experienced 15 years of civil war in Liberia – which saw her and her sister take a leadership position in her family to help get her sick mother to safety – that Liberian women were able to take resilience into the Ebola crisis.
“With Ebola, there was an opportunity to say, ‘Because we have experienced the war, we can now use these skills to transform what people think about women, to break myths that women don’t have the skills or couldn’t lead, she told the audiences in both Sydney and Melbourne.
“We used the crisis as an opportunity to reinforce the non-negotiables around gender equality. To prove that women have the skills, women are equal to men, and we are able to bring change.”
She said that through her work with ActionAid on the ground in Liberia, they could coordinate with a range of local women’s organisations to offer the resources and space they needed. They could take much-need information into different communities regarding how to prevent the spread of Ebola.
At the Ebola treatment centre, ActionAid did things that international NGOs didn’t think to do — like buy cheap mobile phones for women so they could call back to their families, who may have otherwise assumed they had died. They purchased cheap televisions so patients could understand more of what was going on, and offered clothing and other resources to those affected.
“When you leave your home and you are thought to have Ebola, one of the first things they do is burn your clothing, your mattresses, all those things,” she said. “But if you went into a treatment unit and got well, we found that many women would just remain there because no one thought, international NGOs didn’t think, to bring them clothing so that they could leave.”
She said that through a deliberate and coordinated effort, the Ebola crisis enabled a transformation of women’s organisations in Liberia. “It made them more grounded, also to be more significant in terms of what happened after Ebola: in terms of engaging the government and different stakeholders and demanding public services so that we do not have another Ebola crisis and most likely not another civil war.”
Meanwhile, Flora Vano spoke about how women are mobilising to address shocking gender inequality in Vanuatu, particularly following the response to Cyclone Pam in 2015, as well as the more frequent and intense cyclones that are now hitting the country as a result of climate change.
Incredibly, there are 52 male MPs leading Vanuatu but no women.
That’s something Flora believes will change, particularly as women have demonstrated resilience and leadership in the face of environmental disasters.
“With ActionAid, these women have a space and a voice,” she said. “It gives them empowerment that they can actually speak on what they have been facing in that space, and how they can actually say, ‘We have been facing this but nobody is actually listening’.”
She said that the ongoing capacity building efforts that women are participating in will eventually see women in Parliament. “Slowly, we are getting there,” she said.
“It is hard, but if we work together as everyone to recognise that there is a need there for women to stand up and know their rights, it will be fantastic.
“We will be free from poverty, free from domestic violence, we will have a voice.”
And she noted how girls have been seeing the work they are doing, and knocking on the door saying they too want to get involved. As such, ActionAid is coordinating girls forums in school to teach them about their rights, and empower them to consider leadership positions.
ActionAid Executive Director Michelle Higelin shared how the new Arise fund aims to empower one million women around the world to lead on disaster response, investing in women’s ability to prepare and to protect during crisis. The fund will also support rapid-response funding, so that ActionAid can immediately work to ensure women’s voices are heard within a couple of days of a humanitarian disaster.
ActionAid hosted Korto in Melbourne thanks to the support of Versent, where sales director Joan Lapid said that the event and its greater cause remained true to one of its true values: to reciprocate.
ActionAid hosted Korto again in Sydney, alongside Flora, thanks to the support of law firm Hall & Wilcox.
Both Korto and Flora talked about communities experiencing crisis on opposite sides of the world, during vastly different emergencies, yet there were familiar themes that emerged regarding the role of women.
Their stories demonstrated that women everywhere share a form of resilience thats truly game-changing, and can be tapped during times of crises with the right support.
Angela Priestley is parts of the ActionAid leadership Circle. You can learn more about the fund here, and watch the below video.