Shifting the power in the Pacific

By Michelle Higelin, Executive Director, ActionAid Australia


In 2016, the world’s governments and humanitarian agencies came together at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul and committed to doing more to empower women and girls in humanitarian crisis – but how are they actually tracking?

In August, a progress report on these commitments identified a significant increase in the recognition of the role that gender plays in humanitarian action by governments and the aid sector. There are also new tools, policies and guidance being developed to further promote gender equality when planning, funding and implementing humanitarian work. However, progress is slow.

The report highlights several major shortcomings around funding and accountability, which limit the effectiveness and fairness of the hard work being done to respond to crises and disasters around the world.

Women from crisis-affected communities continue to be largely shut out of decision making. Their voices, and the voices of other marginalised communities like people with disabilities and people who identify as LGBTQI, continue to go unheard on critical issues. Their unique needs are not being met and their rights are not being protected.

One of the biggest shortcomings of the humanitarian system is the failure to recognise local women’s capabilities, instead insisting on bringing in outside ‘experts’ with little experience of the daily struggle for women in countries affected by crisis.  

Many women’s organisations are also fed up over their perceived ‘weak capacity’, which continues to be cited by aid organisations as the reason for not including them in decision making. As Amparo Sykioco, the Secretary of local women-led coalition PKKK in the Philippines, says:

“Women should be recognised… they have the capacity to act and yet they are not perceived as first responders. Women responders make sure women’s rights are promoted and protected.”

These are powerful voices from women on the frontlines of disaster response, fed up with a system that treats them as victims rather than recognising their role as humanitarian actors and agents of change.

The Shifting the Power Coalition (STPC) in the Pacific is an initiative to challenge the status quo within the humanitarian system and put power back in the hands of those leading emergency response in their own communities – particularly women.

With support from DFAT’s Pacific Women Initiative, the Shifting the Power Coalition has set an ambitious goal to ensure diverse Pacific women’s leadership in humanitarian action is recognised and facilitated. The STPC is a group of women’s organisations across six countries in the region working together to claim their rights and take their seats at the table.

Women’s leadership, voices and needs are the cornerstone of an effective, fair and just humanitarian response, one whereby crisis has the potential to shift power and resources in favour of those most impacted: women.