Women have always been on the front lines of humanitarian action. Women such as Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton not only faced the most brutal conflicts and epidemics of their day, they helped lay the foundation for modern humanitarianism.
Today, more than half of Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers around the world are female, and women are among the first to respond in disaster, epidemics and conflict, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Philippines and Syria.
They are also just as likely as their male counterparts to pay the ultimate sacrifice for their compassion and courage. Just last year, 25-year-old Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Khorsa and 24-year-old Hauwa Mohammed Liman were providing post-natal care at an ICRC-supported health center in Rann, Nigeria, when they were kidnapped, and later killed, by an armed group.
Despite this legacy, women are still not equally represented in top decision-making roles in the humanitarian sector — a profession based on basic principles of impartiality and humanity and on the belief that all people have inherent dignity. “If you had a visual representation, the [humanitarian sector] would be a pyramid with women forming the base,” says Margareta Wahlström, president of the Swedish Red Cross and former official at both the IFRC and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. “As the pyramid gets narrower at the top, there are fewer and fewer women. Women are the base, as the workers, and the men tend to take positions of higher responsibility.”
In the United Nations system, the report noted, there is a similar pyramid. “Women comprise 42.8 per cent of all employees, but with a much greater concentration of women at the entry-level.” As of February 2019, ten of the UN’s 27 humanitarian coordinators are women.
In the Red Cross Red Crescent network, women make up only 31 per cent of the governing boards that oversee Red Cross or Red Crescent National Societies. At the global level, women make up 17 per cent (5 of 30) of elected members on the IFRC governing board.
[Red Cross and Red Crescent]