Women, Children and Adolescents in Humanitarian Settings

On 18 August 2016, heartbreaking images of a child who lost his childhood flashed across our screens or appeared in our newspapers. Failed by the global community, the child, identified as Omran Daqneesh, 5, was treated by medics after an airstrike in the northern city of Aleppo destroyed his home and claimed the life of his brother, leaving the fate of his parents unknown. His image gave us only a glimpse of the suffering that millions of children in fragile settings have to go through, day in day out all over the world.

The numbers are clear - more than 130 million people today are in need of humanitarian assistance. Sixty million people have been forced to flee their homes and 37 countries have been directly affected by conflicts or natural disasters. The populations living in such settings face displacement, starvation and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), injury, trauma, and lack of access to basic health services. The most vulnerable populations in these settings are women, girls and children.

It is estimated that there are 26 million women and girls of reproductive age living in emergency situations, all of whom need health services. OECD data show that the estimated lifetime risk of maternal mortality in fragile states is 1 in 54, as compared to 1 in 4,000 in developed countries. More than 60% of maternal deaths, 53% of under-five deaths and 45% of newborn deaths take place in fragile settings. Behind these statistics are countless families that have been broken up, women that have lost everything they hold dear, and children that will never experience the joys of childhood. These are women, adolescents and children who have as much right to survive, thrive and transform as we do. Because our own children are no different from Omran or Alan Kurdi, the 3-year old Syrian toddler who lost his life just over a year ago on the shores of a Turkish beach while fleeing from the Syrian conflict.

It has been heartening to see how the international community has mobilized to address this issue over the past year. The renewed Global Strategy for Women's, Children's, and Adolescent's Health launched in September 2015, identifies fragile settings as one of its nine priorities, and calls on all humanitarian and development actors to work better together and increase their efforts to build health and resilience among the women, children, and adolescents living in volatile circumstances. Similarly, the United Nations Secretary General has, for the first time, convened 9,000 participants from 173 Member States, including head of states, private sector, CSOs and NGOs at the World Humanitarian Summit held on 23-24 May 2016 in Istanbul to discuss the pressing challenges that are resulting in so much suffering today. Building on this momentum, a Heads of State Summit on large movements of refugees and migrants on 19 September is expected to come up with a roadmap for a better and more coordinated international response to the crises that we are facing today. This meeting proposes to commit to addressing the particular vulnerabilities of women and children in emergency contexts, including by combatting sexual and gender based violence, providing access to sexual and reproductive health care services, and early childhood development opportunities.

If we want to make progress and change the lives of women and children, now is the time to do so. First, we need increased and transparent funding for humanitarian aid which reaches local actors, since they are the first respondents in a time of crises. At present, only 0.2% of humanitarian aid goes directly to local non-government agencies and CSOs, out of an estimated budget of USD 24.5 billion (GBP 17 billion). Secondly, there should be increased flexibility in the way donors and implementers operate, bridging the divide between humanitarian and development streams still present in many agencies. This is particularly important given the chronic nature of the majority of emergencies we face today. Thirdly, innovative and tailored solutions should be incentivized to respond to the challenges in fragile settings. In this regard is also important to support better data collection and analysis to learn what works and what doesn't, and to share that evidence-based knowledge with stakeholders in similar settings.

We will continue to fail our women, girls and children unless we advocate for them to be placed at the centre of humanitarian actions. The commitments and willingness of governments and other stakeholders to address this issue is certainly a step in the right direction but it is not an end in itself. Given the magnitude of the problem and responsibility that falls on our shoulders, we need to make sure that the current attention to conflicts and emergencies translates into concrete action; and most importantly, everyone needs to be ready to be held accountable for the commitments that have been made. We must do better for humanity; we must do better for our women and children. For we are all one.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of two critical conferences at the UN on the Refugee and Migrant crisis: the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants (Sept. 19th, a UN conference) and the Leaders Summit on Refugees (Sept. 20th, hosted by U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, at the UN). To see all the posts in the series, visit here. To follow the conversation on Twitter, see #UN4RefugeesMigrants.