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“We Need to Write Our Own Names”: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in the Rohingya Humanitarian Response in Cox’s Bazar

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Executive Summary

Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are considered central to an effective, inclusive, and rights-based response in crisis, conflict, and natural disasters. Understanding gender roles and power dynamics in an affected community, including intersections with other identity factors such as age, disability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class, is critical to ensure that humanitarian programs and activities meet the needs of women, men, girls, boys, and other groups in the affected community and “do no harm” by inadvertently reinforcing inequality, marginalization, and exclusion.

Gender equality programming in humanitarian responses has been demonstrated to increase access to services and assistance, including education and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, for women and girls; improve the participation, agency, and decision-making power of women and girls in their relationships, households, and communities; and decrease security risks, including the risk of verbal or emotional forms of gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls. There is also evidence that gender equality strategies that engage men and boys—even in those activities that target women and girls—have a higher likelihood of successful outcomes for women and girls, reducing the risk of resentment and resistance from the wider community.

With support from Global Affairs Canada, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) is working to advance gender equality in humanitarian programming globally. As part of this global project, WRC conducted a review of how gender and its intersection with other factors have been integrated by operational agencies and organizations into the Rohingya humanitarian response in Bangladesh, documenting positive practices, lessons learned, and recommendations for the humanitarian response in Cox’s Bazar and globally.

WRC’s gender operational review found commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment across the Rohingya humanitarian response. A range of strategies has been implemented early in the response targeting women and girls, with a particular focus on responding to and preventing GBV. While not consistently implemented, there is some evidence of positive outcomes from engaging men and boys in these activities, with this group demonstrating a willingness to learn about gender issues, and reducing the risk of backlash within the community.
The change in social norms required to foster Rohingya women’s leadership will require longer-term approaches, driven by the community itself. As such, fledgling women’s groups in the camps and their work for the whole Rohingya community provide promising models for transformative change.