Food, hygiene and security in emergencies

Resource date: 2014

In many crisis and refugee situations, women and girls are tasked with obtaining food and fuel for their families, even when it is unsafe to do so. They may be responsible for water collection, even when water systems have been destroyed and alternate sources are far away. They often 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. These guidelines also address emergency preparedness, as well as integrating the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence into all humanitarian work.

Distributing food

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 infants. 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, vitamin A and other supplements to ensure good nutrition for lactating mothers and their babies. Increasingly, food distribution is being used as a point of entry for the delivery of reproductive health care in remote areas.

Hygiene and security

Women and girls are typically responsible for collecting water and firewood. This burden can be time consuming, physically exhausting or even dangerous, particularly because the stress and disruption of war and other disasters often contribute to a rise in sexual violence. Women and girls may be at risk if they must leave the safety of a refugee or displacement camp to collect firewood, for example. Similarly, when latrines and washing facilities are placed far from living areas, women and girls may be vulnerable to attack. 

UNFPA advocates for measures to prevent gender-based violence. For example, proper lighting, night patrols, firewood collection escorts, and separate living facilities for unaccompanied women and girls can mean the difference between safety and attack.

Lack of sanitary supplies for menstruation may further impede the mobility of girls and women, and can lead to 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 be compelled to 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, these kits include head coverings in addition to sanitary supplies and toiletries.