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labor Women Lead, Resist and Thrive – Even in the Midst of Crises

Ahead of International Women’s Day, we remind governments, and all actors in humanitarian contexts, that aligning domestic law and policy to international standards is not enough. Rights women have on paper must be reflected in their everyday lives.

A woman sings during a protest against government policies on land and environmental protections in São Paulo, Brazil, 31 January 2019. ,

The past decade, particularly 2020 with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, has shone a light on the full extent of existing inequalities in the world. Ahead of this International Women’s Day, we would like to draw attention to ways that women – whether Indigenous, rural workers or those enduring an occupation – resist and mobilise in the face of multiple, long-term crises. Existing patriarchal systems, structural inequalities and discriminatory laws have long stalled meaningful progress towards gender equality and women’s rights. For women living in crises such as conflicts, facing recurrent environmental disasters and cyclical financial shocks, the Covid-19 pandemic has come as an additional blow, severely impacting their right to adequate food.

Conflict is a key and persistent driver of food system breakdown: more than half of undernourished people live in countries experiencing conflict. Extreme weather, economic shocks and climate change are also prevalent drivers of food crises and greatly affect food systems. Funding requirements for food security in humanitarian appeals rose to US$9 billion in 2020, up from US$5 billion in 2015.

Crises manifest in different ways and take different forms. They can affect only particular groups in a population or bring destruction to entire nations.

Marginalised communities, and specifically Indigenous peoples, have long faced a crisis of food insecurity, and in many parts of the world women and girls face a crisis of long-standing discriminatory practices that directly impact their food security. Women agricultural workers can face unjust working conditions that offer little job security, lower wages than male counterparts and no benefits for illness or maternity, all while being exposed to an often unsafe work environment.

Even in wealthy countries in the Global North, Indigenous peoples often face extremely high levels of food insecurity. This is largely due to the impacts of colonisation, which include land theft, severely diminished access to hunting, fishing, and wild food gathering grounds, and the arrival and dominance of an entirely new colonial food system. In many parts of the world Indigenous women whose access to traditional foods has been severely limited must rely on expensive and often unhealthy, ultra-processed foods to feed their families.

Caught in the quagmire of these multiple crises, women and girls continue to be the group distinctly and often disproportionately affected.

In armed conflicts, for example, adolescent girls are 90 per cent more likely to be pulled out of school, and 70 per cent of women in humanitarian settings are more likely to experience gender-based violence (GBV). Quarantine measures during the pandemic have exacerbated domestic violence globally, and many women have been forced to prioritise unpaid care work and gendered domestic responsibilities.

The rights of women are embedded in, and strengthened through several policy and international legal instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Framework for Action for Food Security and Nutrition in Protracted Crises (CFS-FFA) addresses the inequalities and vulnerabilities often faced by women and girls in crises that affect their food and nutrition security. The United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1325 recognises and reaffirms women’s role in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace-building, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction. Additionally, adopted in 2019, the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 is the first international labour standard to address the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment.

Routinely, these policies and laws are poorly implemented – if at all. In many regions, women and girls are evicted repeatedly throughout their lifetime, and are systemically prevented from claiming rights to land for subsistence and livelihood. Even where domestic law aligns with CEDAW, local customary practices that deny women’s rights to land can in practice take precedence.

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Supporting women’s resourcefulness and resilience

Despite these challenges, women and girls in crises are, by necessity, resilient and resourceful, and have a sea of knowledge that boosts peace-building and humanitarian efforts. Experience and research show that when women are included in humanitarian action their entire community benefits. Women are often the first responders to a crisis and play a key role in the survival and rebuilding of communities.

In Palestine, women who have been dispossessed from their lands since 1947 have become agricultural entrepreneurs, building resilience and resistance to the ongoing occupation, closure, and apartheid system implemented by the Israeli state.

This includes the saving, sharing and cultivation of traditional seed varieties. One Palestinian woman in the West Bank spearheaded the first and only Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, preserving and making traditional seeds widely available, while the Urban Women Agripreneurs Forum in the Gaza Strip save and share seeds to grow on rooftops and home gardens in Gaza’s densely populated cities and refugee camps. These activities not only help provide access to fresh, healthy foods, but is also a form of resistance against Israeli actions that threaten Palestinian farming culture.

In many parts of Uganda, women have been able to survive financial shocks by becoming resourceful workers in the informal sector: as street food vendors, agricultural or fishing workers, and in any other capacity that allows them to have an income. As a result of their survival abilities and growing self-sufficiency, they have been accused of witchcraft and have been a target of ‘witch-hunting’. Such accusations have stripped them of their lands, homes, sources of livelihood and exposed them to acute social banishment. Against all odds, these women have mobilised and gathered support from local organisations, and are working to challenge these practices with advocacy and legal tools.

Affected women and local women’s rights groups are also increasingly fighting the ongoing inheritance-loss crisis through legal and advocacy avenues. In India and several countries in Africa, training is being provided to measure the true cost of the losses that women endure through these discriminatory practices.

Crises present the most unimaginable, unconducive living conditions and take a much bigger toll on women. We have seen how women continue to mobilise and become meaningful leaders of change and resistance, even during crises.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, we remind governments, and all actors in humanitarian and crisis contexts, that aligning domestic law and policy to international standards is simply not enough. The rights that women have on paper must be reflected in their everyday lives.

This can be best achieved by consistently monitoring on-the-ground outcomes in crisis response using a strengthened gender lens. It is also important that affected women are provided the opportunity to equally participate in decision-making, including for crisis response and ways to address root causes of crises. While the primary responsibility to ensure human rights lies with our governments, civil society and ordinary citizens can play a valuable role as eyes and ears throughout these crises. It is up to all of us to transition to a just, equal and sustainable world.

Heather Elaydi is a Palestinian-Canadian researcher and human rights advocate focused on food, land, water and the environment in West Asia and Africa. Heather holds a master’s degree in agriculture and rural development from the University of East Anglia and currently works as program advisor for the Housing and Land Rights Network-Habitat International Coalition (HIC-HLRN).

Ayushi Kalyan is a lawyer and researcher with a focus on human rights advocacy, corporate accountability and women’s rights. Ayushi holds a master’s degree in international human rights and humanitarian law from the University of Essex and currently supports the work on justiciability, accountability and women’s rights at FIAN International.