As of May 6, 2022, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of the war in Ukraine was 7.7 million, with another 5.7 million refugees and asylum-seekers living in neighboring countries.1 The lack of humanitarian corridors has created a situation people are either stuck in Ukraine or face myriad protection risks while fleeing or in emergency shelters.
Despite public and private support for Ukraine, the largely ad hoc and gender-blind response fails to meet the basic needs and protection concerns of internally displaced people – mainly women and children – and others affected by the war in Ukraine. Duty-bearers – including international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and the United Nations (UN) – have so far failed to honor their own global commitments to localize humanitarian aid. This includes systematically creating opportunities for women and girls to design and lead responses, incorporating their views into all phases of the operational management cycle. With a few exceptions, there has been no dedicated funding for sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and services against violence against women and girls (VAWG).
Instead of the multi-year, flexible funding that local, women- and girl-led organizations need, these revamped frontline groups are seeking grants that may cover as little as one to three months of total costs. They undertake underfunded humanitarian work for which they are not necessarily trained, ultimately defeating their core mission.
In any armed conflict, male violence against women and girls increases rapidly and remains high long after the fighting has ended. Ukraine and the surrounding region are currently facing an unprecedented crisis of women and children displaced by the war, but much-needed, gender-sensitive measures to prevent violence are lagging behind in response. In Ukraine and surrounding countries, women’s rights organizations (WROs) responded to the needs of women and girls before the war and are now working to support women and girls displaced or otherwise affected by the conflict. Because of their extensive experience and local knowledge, these groups are best positioned to develop the solutions girls and women need now. These organizations are asking for recognition of their expertise and for the funding needed to use their knowledge as a further response to this crisis.
Instead, a familiar structure emerges: a top-down, unequal relationship between capable local actors and international humanitarian agencies. This arrangement always fails women and girls, even by these agencies’ own standards. Women and girls are not consulted in the design of the assistance that is being developed for them and WROs are alienated from humanitarian coordination structures. They are expected to do more than ever, with little or no additional funding. VOICE witnessed this familiar scenario in relation to the international humanitarian community’s response to COVID-19, where the humanitarian aid sector – despite its commitment to crisis-affected populations – once again helped to advance women and girls’ empowerment rights, Consultation , and services and, in some cases, subjected them to their own forms of violence.25
In addition, there are a number of actors and organizations that play an important role in the humanitarian field that may not have traditional humanitarian or crisis experience and therefore may not, or may not, have the more sophisticated gender-based violence (GBV) and broader protections experience. These entities are strongly encouraged to seek expertise to manage and implement gender-based violence and other protection legislation, policies and strategies, and to strongly consider and integrate the related assessment recommendations contained in this report.
Through a new partnership between VOICE and HIAS, and as part of an assessment in six countries in the region, VOICE conducted a three-week remote rapid assessment in Ukraine to address the needs of women and girls affected by war and the needs of WROs and groups responding to the emergency. The assessment found that the top concerns for women and girls include threats to physical security from active conflict and constant bombing; food insecurity; and lack of access to health care, including the full range of reproductive health services, care for rape survivors and mental health. The assessment identifies a number of risks of gender-based violence, including an increase in domestic violence and an extreme lack of safe and sustainable housing and shelter. In addition, transgender people do not have access to proper health care and are at extreme risk when attempting to cross the border. As noted above, the WROs best placed to address these concerns are excluded from humanitarian coordination structures and, if they are able to find funding at all, face overly onerous and restrictive funding structures.
Women and children are the face of this crisis and remain on the front lines of the conflict. The crisis requires locally-focused, tailored responses through which women’s organizations can impact humanitarian response.