During crisis and in refugee situations, women and girls obtain food and fuel for their families, even when it is unsafe to do so. They are responsible for water collection, even when water systems have been destroyed and alternate sources are far away. They are often in charge of collecting fuel, even though this may put them in risky situations. They help to organize or rebuild schools. They protect the vulnerable and care for sick and disabled family members and neighbours.
Women are also likely to take on additional tasks, including construction and other physical labour, and activities to generate income for their families.
UNFPA was part of a major inter-agency effort to establish guidelines to protect women from violence in emergency situations. The guidelines cover everything from prepositioning supplies to taking measures to ensure safety for children going to school and women collecting food and fuel. They also address emergency preparedness, as well as minimal and more comprehensive responses to integrating sexual and gender-based violence prevention and responses into all humanitarian work.
Experience shows that food aid is more likely to reach the people who need it when women are in charge of its distribution. Women tend to be aware of the needs of particular families, including female-headed households. Putting food aid in the hands of women also reduces corruption and sexual exploitation.
Food programmes must also provide for the unique nutritional needs of women and girls. Women are especially vulnerable to poor nutrition. Vitamin and iron deficiencies, especially anaemia, can be fatal for pregnant women and their babies. Malnutrition in young girls can endanger their health years later when they are ready to start families of their own.
In crisis situations, UNFPA often provides iron folate and Vitamin A and other supplements to ensure good nutrition for lactating mothers and their babies. Increasingly, as during a drought in Nepal, food distribution is being used as a point of entry for delivery of reproductive health care in remote areas. During Niger’s food crisis in late 2005, UNFPA, launched an initiative to improve the nutritional status of pregnant and nursing women. It also used the food distribution as an entry point to encourage women to take advantage of existing reproductive health services.
Women and girls are usually responsible for collecting water and firewood. If the sources are far away or in an unprotected area, this burden can be time consuming, physically exhausting or even dangerous, as the stress and disruption of war and other disasters often lead to a rise in sexual violence.
A lack of sanitary supplies for menstruation may further impede the mobility of girls and women, or them to experience discomfort, shame and isolation for several days each month. In the absence of appropriate supplies, women may be inhibited from carrying out daily tasks, and girls may stay home from school, increasing their likelihood of dropping out.
UNFPA has taken the lead in organizing and distributing hygiene kits based on what local women have said they need. In some Muslim countries, they have included head coverings, as well as sanitary supplies and toiletries.
When latrines and washing facilities are placed far from living areas, women and girls may be vulnerable to attack. In many refugee settlements, women and girls may also be in danger if they must leave the safety of the camp to collect firewood and animal fodder. Proper lighting, night patrols, firewood collection escorts, and separate living facilities for unaccompanied women and girls can mean the difference between safety and sexual attack.
UNFPA has worked to prevent sexual violence and promote the rights of its victims in countries from Colombia to Sudan and Sierra Leone.