Including people with disabilities and older people in gender-based violence programming: How do we move towards action and outcomes in humanitarian response?

Authors: Emma Pearce – Gender & Inclusion Consultant; Sophie Van Eetvelt – Innovation Manager, Elrha; Mendy Marsh – Co-founder & Executive Director, VOICE

Global commitments to prevent and respond to gender-based violence (GBV) from the earliest stages of a humanitarian crisis require tangible changes to the way humanitarian programmes are delivered – from assessment and design through to funding, monitoring and evaluation. At the same time, an increasing drive for inclusion in humanitarian response also requires a substantial shift in the way humanitarian programming is conceptualised and ‘done’. The Humanitarian Inclusion Standards launched in 2018 provide key actions and guidance for humanitarian actors to include people with disabilities and older people. The standards cover identification, addressing barriers to accessing services, and fostering participation in humanitarian programmes, including protection programming.

In May 2019, Elrha and VOICE worked together on a rapid review of disability and older age inclusion in humanitarian GBV interventions. The rapid review collected qualitative data through a range of methodologies, including a desk review of formal and grey literature such as programme documentation, and key informant interviews with key stakeholders. A total of 26 projects / interventions were included in the review, which captures current practice, persistent gaps and key opportunities to strengthen GBV programming. We highlight some of these findings below.

We must translate assessments into actions and outcomes

At the field level, activity on inclusion in GBV programming largely focuses on assessment. Often these involve targeted studies led by specialist organisations and the integration of questions on disability and age into sectoral needs assessments. From such activity, it is now well-documented that women and girls with disabilities and older women face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that increase their risk of GBV and may also hinder their access to programmes and services. However, there is little evidence of how these assessments influence or go on to inform future programming and activities or affect inclusion and GBV outcomes for individuals, households or communities.

We need more attention on skills and capacities

Assessments are almost exclusively focused on GBV risks and barriers that people with disabilities and older people face when accessing services. The skills and capacities of these so-called ‘vulnerable groups’ are consistently overlooked, missing a critical opportunity to benefit from their contributions to women’s empowerment and community-based protection initiatives. A report by the Women’s Refugee Commission and International Rescue Committee shares a pertinent perspective from Mawazo, an older refugee woman with disabilities – “My name, in my language, means both problems and ideas. I have a lot to talk about and a lot to share with others.”

We must recognise diversity over the life course

Inclusive programming is not yet implemented as a coherent and integrated approach that recognises all that contributes to marginalisation. Most actors instead target specific sub-groups (e.g., women and girls with disabilities or older people) with little reflection on the diversity within these groups (e.g., type of disability, refugee status, religious beliefs) and how such characteristics can combine to compound and increase the risk of GBV. This approach is often termed ‘intersectionality’. Additionally, there is little recognition of how risks and barriers may change at different points in a person’s life. To address this issue, we need more understanding and increased capacity to apply an intersectional lens when analysing risks and barriers. This is vital to identify effective strategies for those who are consistently excluded and may be hidden in the community, such as women and girls with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities, female caregivers of people with disabilities and older women.

We must commit funding for inclusive GBV programming

The inclusion of people with disabilities and older people cannot be viewed in isolation from the systemic challenges of GBV programming in humanitarian settings. A recent study by VOICE and the International Rescue Committee revealed that funding for GBV projects accounted for just 0.12% of all humanitarian funding in 2016-2018. Given the magnitude of the problem, and the need to reach diverse at-risk groups in humanitarian crises, this proportion is much lower than required. Additionally, the operational capacity and costs of women’s civil society organisations – often the frontline for GBV response – remain under-recognised in response planning and budgeting. Organisations of women with disabilities report a lack of funding as one of their most significant challenges when engaging in humanitarian responses.

What are the next steps?

Elrha and VOICE are two of the organisations working to address some of the key areas for action that have been set out here. Elrha is a global charity that finds solutions to complex humanitarian problems through research and innovation, with focus areas on GBV and the inclusion of older people and people with disabilities. VOICE is a new global organisation confronting one of the world’s oldest and most widespread human rights abuses: violence against women and girls. VOICE challenges traditional, ineffectual methods of addressing this violence with a proven but chronically underused resource: women and girls themselves.

Alongside the areas covered in this blog, to meet global commitments on the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people, we also need to map and critically analyse the evidence base on what currently works, where and why. Only then will we be able to translate standards and guidelines into sector-wide change in practice and improved outcomes for individuals, households and communities.

Elrha is committed to driving understanding of what works for inclusion in humanitarian response. With funding from the UK Department of International Development (DFID), Elrha now has a dedicated focus area on innovation to enable the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people. This is in addition to an existing focus area on gender-based violence, set up in 2016. Earlier this year, the first innovation challenges on disability and older age were launched, focusing on GBV and WASH programming.

Elrha is also funding a large-scale, systematic Gap Analysis exercise to identify key gaps, priorities and opportunities for future innovation challenges and research on the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people. This work will start in September and will include consultation with communities affected by crises, as well as with humanitarian actors and local organisations.

VOICE will continue to amplify the voices of local women- and girl-led organisations and networks, promoting women-led solutions to GBV in humanitarian crises. VOICE is currently working to address the barriers that prevent direct donor funding of local women’s organisations. This is through supporting expanded partnerships and advocacy for increased investment in systems led by diverse groups of women and girls.

As part of a community, Elrha and VOICE encourage all actors and stakeholders to continue to question and challenge approaches and strategies for the inclusion of people with disabilities and older people. We must shift from not only understanding the problem to documenting what works and innovating for improvement. Throughout all this, people with disabilities and older people – their rights and their capacities – must be at the centre of all solutions.

Further Reading:

Promising Practice Case Studies:

About the authors

Sophie is an Innovation Manager at the Elrha Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), which she joined in early 2019. She leads Elrha’s new work on disability and older age inclusion, which includes convening a Technical Working Group and designing innovation challenges. She also provides support to Elrha’s growing WASH portfolio. Before joining Elrha, Sophie spent over three years at the UK Department for International Development (DFID) Research and Evidence Division, where she managed innovative programmes to support start-ups and social enterprises. Sophie has seen first-hand the value of bringing together communities, innovators, academics and the humanitarian community to find effective solutions.

Emma is a specialist in inclusive humanitarian action with over ten years’ experience working with populations affected by crisis and conflict, including refugees and asylum seekers. In her former role as Associate Director at the Women’s Refugee Commission, Emma led the organization’s global research and advocacy on gender and disability inclusion across the humanitarian sector. She now works as a Gender & Inclusion Consultant providing technical support and advice to a range of organizations. Finally, Emma has worked in partnership with organizations of persons with disabilities (DPOs) from around the world to ensure that gender and inclusion is reflected in humanitarian priorities at global, regional and country levels. She is currently undertaking a PhD at Deakin University focused on the role of women with disabilities in humanitarian action.

Co-founder and Executive Director of VOICE, Mendy Marsh is a feminist social entrepreneur and movement builder with over 20 years of experience working on violence against women and girls (VAWG). Her mission is to amplify the voices of women and girls, to ensure that conflict and disaster responses are centered on what they know they need. An industry expert on VAWG in conflicts and disasters, Mendy managed the global VAWG in emergencies portfolio at UNICEF headquarters for almost 10 years, where she drove UN entities, NGOs and research groups to develop innovative tools, shaped UN policy, raised millions of dollars, and defined cutting-edge interventions to promote the empowerment of women and girls in humanitarian contexts. She drove the creation of a global team of recognized experts that trained and mentored over 3,500 humanitarian actors on preventing and responding to risks of VAWG across 18 countries. Mendy has master’s degrees in both Public Health and Social Work from Columbia University.