Women on the frontline

Helen Pattinson (centre) with two girls whose family were helped by ActionAid after the 2015 Nepal earthquake completely destroyed their home.

When a natural disaster or emergency strikes, the world responds with compassion to help those who are in urgent need of assistance. But how much attention do we give to how this aid gets delivered? Most of us want to be reassured that our money is reaching the most vulnerable and to have a sense that it has made a difference.

When you stop to think about it, there are many complexities for those doing this humanitarian work on the ground. How do you decide what to use the money for? Is it what people need? How do you get the correct, most ethical supplies? How do you transport it, particularly if there has been a natural disaster? And then how do you decide who needs the help most and distribute it fairly?

I was in Nepal just a few days after the earthquakes in April 2015. On landing in Kathmandu, here was a sharp juxtaposition of serene normality and utter devastation. Many people were returning to normal life, less fearful of aftershocks and moving from makeshift camps back to their homes. Yet for thousands of others, life would never be the same. Some were mourning the loss of loved ones, others had been injured in the quake, countless more had lost their homes and their livelihoods. I spoke to one lady who described how the earthquake had shaken her house and belongings, toppling over the big basket where she stored her rice and rendering the food supply for her family completely useless. She had nothing left.

The next day I went to a small community outside the capital that had been particularly badly affected to observe and document the ‘emergency response’ launched by ActionAid. On arrival, there appeared to be very little happening at all. A small group of women sat in a circle, children on their laps, having a discussion. After an hour or so, I asked the translator when the aid was going to be distributed and whether we were in the right place for that. I was told we were at the right place and the response was happening right now! On deeper observation, the session was being facilitated by a local lady who was encouraging everyone to participate—so that the youngest and the eldest, the disabled and the injured all contributed to the discussion.

I asked for more detail on the discussions and was told that they were currently discussing where the ‘emergency shelter tent’ should be located in the village. The women needed it to be near a water point, but also separated from the men, so that they were safe and could maintain their dignity. It was then pointed out to me that the mums and grandmas I sat amongst were the ‘emergency response leaders’ who were making crucial decisions for their community.

I went back the next day to see them again for ‘the next stage’. In an already poor farming community where homes were rubble and kitchen gardens (the only food source) destroyed, many of the villagers hadn’t eaten for a week. With the arrival of ActionAid trucks carrying rice, oil and vegetables, I expected there to be a struggle, a sense of survival of the fittest to get the resources families so desperately needed. This was the ‘typical’ scene of aid delivery I was expecting to catch on film—but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The men in the village did show up and a frenetic hour of activity followed whereby all the sacks of food were unloaded into the community centre. Then all the villagers gathered around and the facilitator from the previous day’s group shared with everyone the decisions that had been made—by the women I had sat with. There was a chart clearly showing how it had been decided the food should be allocated, depending on the circumstances of those affected.

Local Nepalese women take the lead in the rebuilding efforts for their community after the 2015 earthquake.

Women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a natural disaster. But ActionAid believes that when women are placed at the centre of an emergency response, she rebuilds more than just buildings. She builds resilience for herself and her community, the capability to defend her rights and leadership skills that last a lifetime. A woman brings invaluable contextual knowledge, skills and experiences to emergency preparedness and resilience building. It’s why the work that ActionAid does in disaster relief training for women is so crucial. They can quickly assess what people need and help to distribute the emergency supplies fairly.

This work is taking place around the world, not just in Nepal. Twenty-eight-year-old Joanna Moise explains how ActionAid training prepared her to lead people to safety after the hurricane in Haiti: “It helped me realise that I don’t have to wait for a man or superior to say ‘Joanna, let’s go!’ I can take the reins all on my own.”

To return to the question of ‘how can I be sure my money will help in an emergency’, it is heartening to think that one of the very best solutions is to empower a generation of women leaders. In any context, the results are transformative. Nowhere can this be more important than in a survival situation—where lives can be saved and changed so dramatically.


Helen Pattinson is Deputy Director of Fundraising for ActionAid, an international charity that works with women and girls living in poverty. ActionAid will be presenting a breakout session at Global Philanthropic’s upcoming #TalkingPhilanthropy conference.