An urgent need for relief aid puts a spotlight on women

The number of people requiring humanitarian aid could rise 17% next year. Countries like Bangladesh show women are often key to problem-solving.

People walk past a cyclone shelter in the coastal village of Gabura, Bangladesh.

In a little-noticed triumph last month, the United Nations decided to “graduate” Bangladesh from a list of “least developed” nations in five years. The country’s progress on its economy and in disaster prevention means it will need less assistance. One example: Bangladesh has reduced deaths from cyclones by more than a hundredfold over the past half-century even though it is now one of the most vulnerable countries to flooding from climate change.

Lessons from “graduating” countries like Bangladesh are more important than ever because of the U.N. projection for humanitarian needs next year. In 2022, an estimated 274 million people will need urgent help, or a 17% rise from this year and a doubling in the last four years. If all those people were in one place, it would be the fourth most populous country.

The U.N. also says famine looms for 45 million people in 43 countries. It is asking for $41 billion in total humanitarian donations.

The main causes of this global need are violent conflicts, the pandemic, and weather disasters. The affected countries range from Ethiopia to Afghanistan to Myanmar. In most of these crises, says U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, “women and girls suffer the most as preexisting gender inequalities and protection risks are heightened.” More than two-thirds of people facing chronic hunger are female.

The world must “put the needs of women and girls central ... to the way we go about our business,” says Mr. Griffiths.

The U.N. and many others involved in humanitarian aid have shifted their focus to gender equality. One reason is that women are often the solution during aid emergencies.

“When disaster strikes or violence breaks out and communities face intense pressure to find safe harbor,” says USAID Administrator Samantha Power, “it is most often women who lead efforts to identify those most in need, and women who direct resources most effectively.”

Which brings us back to Bangladesh as an example for success. One reason for its ability to deal with cyclones is its buildup of a preparedness program with 76,000 volunteers – half of whom are women – who send out warnings of weather disasters and help people evacuate.

“Volunteer gender parity – which has been in place since 2020 – has helped increase the safety of shelters for women,” states a report by the New Humanitarian news site. Also, shelters now have segregated spaces for men and women as well as spaces for farm animals (which encourages people to evacuate). The number of shelters has increased from 44 in 1970 to more than 14,000 today. During that same period, the ratio of female-to-male deaths from cyclones has declined from 14-to-1 to 1-to-1.

As humanitarian needs are forecast to rise next year, “The world is coming together to find solutions to these multiple crises,” says U.N. Secretary‑General António Guterres.

Or as Purnima Sadhu, a 16-year-old Bangladeshi student told the New Humanitarian:

“Our parents did not learn about disasters when they were young, but we do. Climate change will bring bigger disasters in the future, but we know we can prepare for them. We are not afraid.”

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