In focus: Localizing humanitarian action with women at the forefront


A scene from the Palanca-Maiaki-Udobnoe border crossing, between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine on 1 March 2022. Photo: UN Women/Aurel Obreja
A scene from the Palanca-Maiaki-Udobnoe border crossing, between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine on 1 March 2022. Photo: UN Women/Aurel Obreja

When crises hit, humanitarians rush to respond to the urgent needs of impacted populations. By the time international organizations have a grasp of the magnitude and nature of the needs and are able to deploy resources accordingly, local organizations and volunteers are usually already on the ground delivering urgently needed assistance, often invisibly.

With their access to, bonds with and legitimacy among affected people – as well as their deep understanding of the areas in which they work – local actors, including women, are often first responders to humanitarian needs. UN Women has been working across its triple mandate to strengthen localization and facilitate the inclusion and participation of local women’s organizations in the planning and implementation of crisis response.

What is localization?

There has been growing awareness in international humanitarian circles of the importance of empowering local responders to lead and deliver humanitarian aid. Recognizing that local knowledge and cultural understanding are essential to help impacted populations, localization seeks to strengthen the capacity and resources of local organizations to increase the reach, effectiveness and accountability of humanitarian efforts. It is a bottom-up way of rethinking humanitarian action, reinforcing community-rooted efforts.

Localization is essential to working more effectively across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus, which complements humanitarian aid with efforts to foster local development and peace. Many of the local and national actors that deliver humanitarian assistance are also involved in development, peacebuilding and post-crisis recovery. As such, strengthening their leadership and capacity can help rebuild resilient communities and foster lasting peace and development.

The gendered impacts of crises

When crises strike, gender inequalities are often exacerbated. These include reduced access to life-saving services and decision-making processes for women and girls. Gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, often increases during crises while protection mechanisms deteriorate, depriving women and girls of their fundamental right to live free from violence. Crises also often hit women’s livelihoods hardest because they tend to work in informal sectors, increasing their risk of losing income or engaging in poorly paid work or transactional sex.

Displacement is also experienced differently by men and women as it entails gender-specific challenges that women-led groups are best placed to address. Often, the great majority of those displaced by crises are women and children. For example, around 60 per cent of Ukraine’s 7.7 million internally displaced are women and children, as are 90 per cent of the 5.6 million refugees who fled to in neighbouring countries, making it one of the most gendered displacement crises of our times.

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Women as providers and first responders

Crisis and conflict often shift gender dynamics and roles, allowing women to take on new formal and informal leadership responsibilities, particularly in contexts where men are absent because they are missing, detained or away fighting. In such situations, women often become the sole providers for their families, with increased burdens of unpaid care work.

As members of impacted communities with an intimate knowledge of their people, networks and needs, women are often first responders during crises, playing a central role in the survival and resilience of their families and communities. Moreover, women’s groups are the first to respond to the unique needs of women and girls, who are usually hit hardest by crises and who face gender-specific challenges and violations. For example, women’s groups are primary supporters to survivors of gender-based and conflict-related sexual violence, offering survivors solidarity and help to stand on their own feet again.

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In the words of Nataliia Onipko: “Local women’s organizations are the ears and eyes of the humanitarian response to Ukraine’s crisis.”

- Nataliia Onipko, Founder of Zaporuka, explains how the shorter the distance between those in need and those who can address those needs is, the more effectively the available resources can be used. Read more here.

What happens when localization is gender-blind?

Despite international commitment to gender equality on the one hand, and to localizing humanitarian action on the other, efforts have largely failed to recognize power imbalances within the humanitarian system that make it harder for women-focused civil society actors to access the resources they need. When localization is gender-blind, it reinforces discriminatory social and gender norms and structures and power relations that perpetuate inequalities and vulnerabilities.

Although localization generally improves the relevance and effectiveness of humanitarian aid, efforts that ignore the specific needs and voices of women and girls are incomplete and unlikely to be effective.

How can localization be made gender-transformative?

Women groups’ contributions to humanitarian action are guided by their deep understanding of gendered power dynamics in their communities. As such, their efforts are often described as “gender-transformative,” going beyond meeting the urgent needs of girls and women to fuelling lasting gender equality gains within their communities. With their contextual and cultural understanding of sociopolitical and gender dynamics, their access to affected populations and their ability to influence social dynamics at the local level, local women’s groups are often those best placed to advance gender equality in their communities.

The meaningful inclusion of women’s groups in all phases of humanitarian action can provide a strategic bridge between humanitarian response and long-term development. Supporting women-led groups’ engagement in humanitarian action can help build community resilience against recurrent and predictable crises. Indeed, with women’s and girls’ local participation and leadership, humanitarian responses can be designed and delivered to support an equal recovery and inclusive development for all. This can ultimately also improve efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian action.

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The push for gender-responsive localization

Over the years, UN Women has established a strong network with around 1,500 women’s organizations at local, national, regional and global levels, enabling it to incorporate the voices and participation of local women in humanitarian action and enhance gender-equitable outcomes for crisis-affected and at-risk women and girls. Thanks to the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF), UN Women has intensified its support to local women-led and women’s rights organizations to enhance their participation and leadership in emergency planning and response. Through such work, UN Women is helping put women’s organizations at the heart of humanitarian action and ensuring their participation in decision-making on all aspects of the humanitarian-development-peace continuum.

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