According to a new report produced by Oxfam Canada, conflicts and humanitarian crises are especially hard on women and girls.
Canada's internationally celebrated feminist foreign policy is a work in progress and cannot yet be declared a success. Indeed, the Canadian government must still address a number of challenging issues when it comes to formulating and delivering humanitarian assistance programs in conflict situations
Under the guidance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has formulated a set of international policies that aim to reorder Canadian foreign policy, including peacekeeping and international assistance.
According to the Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, Ottawa is placing “gender equality at the centre of poverty eradication and peacebuilding efforts by challenging the discrimination faced by women and girls around the world and by recognizing that inequalities exist along intersectional lines.”
For example, Canada is committed to allocating 15% of bilateral international development assistance to programs to “advancing gender equality and improving women and girls’ quality of life.” These initiatives include efforts to combat sexual and gender-based violence and support for women’s rights groups.
Women in conflict
War, civil conflicts, and other conflict situations generate humanitarian disasters and cause untold human suffering for both sexes. However, female refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) tend to suffer more than male refugees and IDPs.
According to a new report produced by Oxfam Canada, conflicts and humanitarian crises are especially hard on women and girls. “They face increased risk of violence, exhausting workloads to ensure their families survive and lack full control over decisions that affect the trajectories of their lives,” states the report, which is entitled Protected and Powerful: Putting Resources and Decision Making Power in the Hands of Women in Conflict. The report is written by Brittany Lambert, Oxfam Canada’s Women’s Rights Policy and Advocacy specialist.
According to the Oxfam report, when civilians are displaced by conflict, women and girls are more vulnerable than men and boys due to “pre-existing social norms” that tend to put them at greater risk of insecurity and violence. And women and girls are “less likely than men and boys to have adequate access to food, healthcare, shelter, nationality and documentation.”
Women and girls tend to be caregivers when their communities are displaced by conflict. And this tends to put them at increased risk, because “they might have to leave camps and wander into insecure territory in search of food, water and firewood or be exploited by those who have power over these supplies.”
In addition, conflict disrupts local economies, causing the loss of livelihoods. And Oxfam says that this “puts women and girls at heightened risk of exploitation, trafficking and child marriage.” For example, among Syrian refugees living in Lebanon in 2015-2016, the child marriage rate hit a staggering 40%.
In the Oxfam report, Lambert explains that there is a clear link between gender equality and peace. She notes that societies affected by conflict “tend to have weak public services, repressive and corrupt governance and justice systems, and highly marginalized groups.” And the Oxfam official also points out that conflict and violence retard societal development.
“Countries characterized by these dynamics are classified as fragile,” the Oxfam report states. And in these dysfunctional countries, poverty, conflict, and fragility tend to be circular.
Lambert stresses the importance of understanding the political, social, and economic factors that fuel conflict. Such challenges are also linked to gender inequality. The author cities the example of “high bride prices” that “encourage cattle raiding and conflict between groups” in conflict plagued South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 only to descend into civil conflict in Dec. 2013.
Oxfam reports that sexist family laws—marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance—tend to contribute to conflict in developing countries. These discriminatory laws tend to reinforce “heavily-male dominant” societal values that supposedly “glorify bloodshed and war” and “an economic system based on raiding and accumulating personal profit at any cost.”
In addition, countries with sexist family laws tend to “experience higher levels of violence against women,” Lambert writes. And the normalization of violence “on a small scale” tends to feed violence on a larger scale. “Indeed, socially constructed notions of masculinity play a key role in driving conflict everywhere in the world.”
Failed humanitarian policies
According to the Oxfam report, humanitarian policies often fail women and girls, because “their needs aren’t prioritized and the complex drivers of conflict, which include gender inequality, go unaddressed.”
For example, the humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGO) alleges that many humanitarian interventions designed to help the 700,000 Rohingya refugees displaced by a campaign of ethnic cleansing unleashed by the Myanmar military were put in place without the involvement of Rohingya women. As a result, the humanitarian response is not adequately meeting the needs of refugee women.
To tackle the problem, the NGO urges the Trudeau government to adequately funded “transformative humanitarian action” with the aim of re-balancing “gender power relations.”
The self-proclaimed feminist NGO wants Canada to specifically place greater emphasis on gender-based violence and sexual health of women. And Oxfam is specifically pushing the federal government to invest more in reproductive health—which is another way of saying, at least in part, that Oxfam wants Canada to make abortion services available to women living in conflict and crisis situations.
Oxfam warns that progress on achieving gender equality will be limited if Canada does not implement feminist values in other areas of its foreign policy. “Canada needs policy coherence across all foreign policy actions—in aid, diplomacy, trade and defence,” Lambert writes. In other words, government policies should never override the human rights of women.
For instance, Lambert recommends that Canada should reconsider its participation in the arms trade, increase diplomatic support for women’s rights defenders, “and mobilize resources and political will to implement its commitments to women, peace and security.”
However, not all of the shortcomings of international assistance policies can be blamed on government assistance policies. In fact, Oxfam acknowledges that the failure to involve Rohingya women in the planning the humanitarian response to the crisis was “due to pre-existing conservative gender norms in the Rohingya community, and the speed at which the crisis unfolded.”
So what is the solution to the problem? “A feminist approach to humanitarian action should seek change both within communities affected by conflict and within the humanitarian system,” the report states. And the NGO wants Canada to push for change “by bolstering gender-transformative programming” by “empowering local women’s rights actors.”
However, the Oxfam report criticizes the Trudeau government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy for the lack of stable funding for gender-transformative initiatives. “Short-term funding and a lack of funding opportunities for gender equality in humanitarian assistance are some of the biggest challenges,” the report states.
The federal government is increasingly using multi-year funding for NGO humanitarian projects, which tends to assist humanitarian organizations in testing feminist programs. However, Canada tends to fund proposals from humanitarian groups that dovetail with the main sectors of humanitarian intervention, including health, protection, water and shelter.
However, Lambert points out that “stand-alone gender programming is not a category, which means that most gender interventions in humanitarian programming are mainstreamed.” As a result, the Canadian approach “makes securing funding for gender-transformative programming very difficult.” In other words, Oxfam and other humanitarian NGOs must make their feminist projects conform to Canada's traditional international assistance priorities.
Recommendations for Canada
“With a self-declared feminist government and an ambition to be a world leader on gender equality and feminist foreign aid and policy,” writes Lambert, “Canada can make a strong contribution to world peace by tackling gender inequality before, during and after conflicts.” But to realize the goal of a more equitable world, she asserts that Canada “must continue to transform the way it delivers humanitarian assistance—and adopt a coherent feminist foreign policy.”
The government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared itself to be feminist.
Oxfam offers a series of very ambitious recommendations for the Trudeau government, many of which will likely be brushed aside with a sympathetic smile. For example, the NGO wants Ottawa to come up with a ten-year plan to implement the United Nations official development assistance target of 0.7% of gross national income. Although Canada tends to pay lip service to the 0.7% target, successive governments—Liberal and Conservative—have failed to reach it.
A more intriguing and realistic proposal concerns the creation of a special fund for programming dedicated to addressing gender imbalances. The fund, which would account for at least 15% of Canada’s total humanitarian assistance budget, would support local women’s rights actors and pay for a monitoring mechanism that would evaluate humanitarian responses from a feminist perspective.
In addition, the NGO wants Canada to close “loopholes in legislation to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty,” making sure that the Canadian Commercial Corporation does not broker weapons sales that lead to human rights abuses. And Oxfam recommends that weapons export licenses be denied to nation-states with poor records on gender-based violence in conflict situations.
On Sept. 22, 2018, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced the establishment of the post of ambassador for women, peace, and security.
Oxfam also wants the post of ambassador for women, peace, and security—which was announced in Sept. by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland as she hosted the first ever gathering of women foreign ministers—to be adequately funded. Similarly, the NGO is calling for the establishment of a well-funded research institute on women, peace, and security.
Although the Oxfam report is well thought out, there are barriers to the implementation of some of its recommendations.
For example, it seems highly unlikely that the federal government will curtail the arms trade. Indeed, the Trudeau government has been very reluctant to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which persecutes and tortures bloggers and dissidents and brutally murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Another barrier to the full implementation to the Oxfam strategy is its insistence that “reproductive health and rights” be given priority in Canadian humanitarian policy.
Oxfam reports that “sex, pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections still occur during crises.” And this means, states the report, that there is “need for contraceptives and other reproductive services is also heightened as risks increase during times of instability.”
In humanitarian situations, abortions are reportedly “rarely provided.” According to Oxfam, “this is a big gap considering that rape is widely used as a weapon of war, and that 25% to 50% of maternal deaths in refugee settings are caused by unsafe abortions and related complication.”
Oxfam is calling upon the Canadian government to fund “a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services in humanitarian settings.”
However, this controversial recommendation would almost certainly be opposed by faith communities and pro-life organizations in Canada. And with a federal election in Canada less than a year away, it seems highly unlikely that the Trudeau government will act on Oxfam’s abortion recommendation.
Earlier this year to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, UN Women posted a statement on the United Nations website celebrating the tenth anniversary of “the adoption of the United Nations Security Council’s landmark resolution 1820 (2008), which classified the use of conflict-related sexual violence as an impediment to the restoration of international peace and security.”
The United Nations recommends all member-states formulate National Action Plans on Women Peace and Security.
Although UN Women heralded the advancements in the fight against conflict-related sexual violence, including “successful prosecutions by national and international tribunals against perpetrators who appeared untouchable” and the creation of “codes of conduct for security forces to ensure sensitization and training on conflict-related sexual violence,” the UN agency acknowledged that “sexual violence continues to be used as a tactical, effective and cost-free strategy to terrorize communities and facilitate territorial, political and economic gains in the war field.”
UN Women asserts that the community of nations must have a “be clear-cut, comprehensive, prompt and sustainable” response to the scourge of sexual violence. “Preventing these crimes should be our number one priority.”
The UN agency has undertaken strategies to combat sexual violence in conflict, such as supporting “supporting National Action Plans on Women Peace and Security as tools to promote women’s participation, leadership and protection from gender-based violence and conflict-related sexual violence, and acting as the Secretariat of the Women, Peace and Security Focal Points Network, an informal, cross-regional forum for more than 80 Member States and regional organizations to share best practices.”
Not only does UN Women stress the importance of preventing sexual violence, the agency also maintains that “strong accountability for sexual violence in conflict is urgently needed.” And UN Women aims to “do more to convert a culture of impunity into a culture of deterrence, by ensuring that efforts to document and investigate international crimes prioritize sexual violence.”
To that end, UN works with legal partners "to rapidly deploy experts to investigate sexual violence in conflict.” For example, investigations were launched in South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria in 2017.
Like Oxfam and the Canadian government, UN Women says that it’s “essential to ensure that women play a key role in peace and security processes.” And the agency notes that female participation in peacekeeping mission is “a critical factor contributing to mission success, both in the United Nations normative frameworks, as well as by commanders on the ground themselves.”
However, UN Women laments the “extremely low number” of female military personnel deployed in current peacekeeping missions. To address this challenge, the UN is trying to boost the number of female officer involved in peacekeeping operations through the Female Military Officers Course (FMOC). Last year, reports UN Women, 123 female officers were trained in peacekeeping.
National Action Plans
Much of the Oxfam strategy to feminize Canadian policies echoes the women, peace and security agenda set out in a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions that demand that nation-states protect the human rights of women and girls be respected in conflict situations, prevent sexual and gender-based violence, and include gender equality in peace and security situations.
The UN urges all member-states to draft and implement national action plans on women, peace, and security.
Canada unveiled its first National Action Plan in 2010 under the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The plan covered 2011 to 2016.
In April of 2015, Canada, then governed by the Harper Conservatives, announced an additional $5.5 million to fight sexual and gender-based violence, which included initiatives in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to statement issued at the time by the Department of Foreign Affairs, “the campaign to end sexual violence in conflict is a priority for the Government of Canada. Violence against women and girls is one of the most prevalent human rights abuses in the world.”
The Trudeau government launched Canada’s second National Action Plan last year, and it covers the period 2017 to 2022. According to a statement issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, this second plan represents “a key component of Canada’s feminist foreign policy, which includes the Feminist International Assistance Policy and Canada’s Defence Policy.”
According to Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy is designed “to contribute to global efforts to eradicate poverty around the world.” And to achieve that objective, Canada will supposedly work to empower women and girls. The policy document states that Canada “recognizes that supporting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is the best way to build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world.”