To drive feminist humanitarian action, listen to women experts
Foyzun and Sunee — humanitarian workers with the World Food Programme in Cox’s Bazar — share their solutions for advancing gender equality in humanitarian emergencies
On a sunny afternoon in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, a group of women congregate in an outdoor gathering space. Children dart among them, and in the middle stands Foyzun Nahar, a program officer for the World Food Programme (WFP). Foyzun comes from a rural village in south-western Bangladesh, and she’s dedicated her career to empowering girls and women.
“Being raised in patriarchal society, where discriminatory social norms are deeply rooted…my inner dream was always pushing me to do something that contributes to upholding women’s position in the society,” says Foyzun.
This belief is central to Foyzun’s work as a Gender Officer for WFP Bangladesh, who has worked with the organization’s Enhancing Food Security and Nutrition (EFSN) initiative. Through EFSN, women receive a cash grant to start their own businesses, as well as training in basic literacy, numeracy, and business skills to help pursue income-generating activities. Groups of women have used these resources to start a wide variety of businesses, ranging from growing vegetables, to tailoring clothing, to starting small restaurants.
“The program is a comprehensive one that aims to transform the lives of the vulnerable families by enrolling women into our project as the primary participants,” explains Sunee Singh, who leads the livelihoods and self-reliance unit, overseeing EFSN. Like Foyzun, Sunee’s passion for supporting girls and women is grounded in personal experience. “I am a big believer in the transformation of communities through women and girls. I didn’t learn this in university or research, this is through my own personal experience and observations that investing in women and girls is the best investment a community can make.”
Foyzun and Sunee are powerful leaders within their communities and at WFP. Here are their solutions for how to design programs for and with girls and women that are holistic, community-driven, and sustainable — and why investing in women experts makes communities more prepared when emergencies strike.
Prioritize the holistic needs of girls and women
Girls and women do not experience their lives in silos — and issues concerning their sexual and reproductive health and rights, nutrition, protection, hygiene, education, and livelihoods are all interconnected. Together, WFP’s team in Bangladesh shows what it means to design a program that prioritizes the whole girl and woman, rather than just one segment of their lives.
This is particularly important in a place like Cox’s Bazar, where the health, nutrition, rights, and education of girls and women are even more closely linked. That’s why the WFP team has shaped EFSN to tackle women’s empowerment from multiple directions — including with a focus on nutrition, protection, and economic participation. By providing a safe environment for girls and women to participate in technical skills trainings and self-help groups, over 9,000 participants have in turn been able to gain the skills and independence to improve their food security, hygiene, and education. Currently, an additional 20,000 women are also undergoing these empowerment schemes.
“I am a big believer in the transformation of communities through women and girls. I didn’t learn this in university or research, this is through my own personal experience and observations that investing in women and girls is the best investment a community can make.”
Ensure meaningful community engagement
Foyzun and Sunee know that girls and women are the best experts on their lives and experiences, and must be meaningfully engaged in the design of programs for them. By providing opportunities for girls and women to help shape the EFSN program, Foyzun and Sunee say that participants feel greater ownership and trust in the initiative.
While women are the primary targets, EFSN also engages men and boys through awareness sessions on gender-based violence, early marriage, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Sunee says that these sessions help “change their conservative perceptions, especially in regards to women’s autonomy over their sexual and reproductive health.”
Both Foyzun and Sunee also stress the importance of reaching influential community members such as religious leaders, elected bodies, teachers, and village heads.
“In our experience, continuous engagement with these stakeholders means the community begins to unlearn the gender bias and learn that gender equality in the household and society ultimately brings harmony and opportunity,” says Sunee.
“Being raised in patriarchal society, where discriminatory social norms are deeply rooted…my inner dream was always pushing me to do something that contributes to upholding women’s position in the society.”
Think and act long-term to drive transformative change
With support from women experts like Foyzun and Sunee and consultation with the community itself, WFP is providing opportunities to transform deep-rooted gender inequalities by developing programs that prioritize women’s long-term futures.
Foyzun and Sunee, together with the EFSN team, work hard to ensure the sustainability of the program by linking participants to local government, elected bodies, and service providers which have a deep understanding of the communities and context. Women who are part of EFSN are now independently travelling into towns in Cox’s Bazar to purchase the goods they need for their businesses. This is an achievement compared to their limited mobility in the past, when they were hardly ever leaving the house.
Women who participate in the EFSN program also meet twice a month to compile their savings and discuss their issues and community needs. Several groups have achieved actions that have brought benefits to the community. For example, one women’s group successfully lobbied for a well to be installed near their settlements, another group successfully pushed for road repairs, and another built a bridge which improves the community’s access to vital services.
Sunee says that, “Amongst the women and surrounding communities that we have reached out to, we definitely see significant changes towards accepting women to have a more decisive role within the household, community, and public.”
Women experts are ready to respond when emergencies strike
Foyzun and Sunee’s expertise leading WFP’s EFSN initiative — which primarily works with Bangladeshi girls and women who have lived in Cox’s Bazar all their life — was invaluable when a massive humanitarian crisis struck the district four years ago.
Since the start of 2015, more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been forced to seek refuge in Cox’s Bazar due to atrocious levels of violence against them at home. Rohingya girls and women face significant risks before, during, and upon arrival in Cox’s Bazar, especially when it comes to gender-based violence, poor access to sexual and reproductive health services, and food insecurity.
Foyzun shares that in the Rohingya community, “Women and girls are generally expected to stay in the home and be close to their family, whereas men and boys are more present in the public sphere.” The majority of girls do not attend school beyond grade five, and many parents will not send their young girls to educational or recreational activities unless they are gender segregated. Therefore, literacy among Rohingya women is low.
Given their expertise designing programs that take holistic, community-driven, and sustainable approaches to meet the needs of girls and women, Sunee and her team were well-placed to rise to this new challenge. Meanwhile, mainstreaming gender across the WFP’s emergency programs has been Foyzun’s focus.
Taking what they learned from the EFSN program, Sunee and her team led the development of WFP’s Self-Reliance program, which aims to improve women’s food security through broader empowerment initiatives. Similar to the EFSN, women receive a cash stipend to meet their immediate needs and gain technical and life-skills, which contributes to their empowerment.
Humanitarian workers like Foyzun and Sunee are change-makers who demonstrate the power of women’s expertise in humanitarian action. They work hard to build strong relationships and trust with local communities, deepen their understanding of context-specific needs, and deliver solutions that fuel progress for the girls and women they serve. We can all learn so much from their example.