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UN ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment reiterates the importance of inclusive humanitarian response

12 Jun 2020

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Internally displaced people in Rann, Borno State, Nigeria (file photo). Credit: OCHA/Yasmina Guerda

Throughout this week, the Humanitarian Affairs Segment of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) tackled a host of emerging and pressing humanitarian issues as the humanitarian community mobilized in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The event reinforced the contribution of humanitarian efforts as a critical part of the UN and international community response to unprecedented challenges in the lead-up to the seventy-fifth anniversary of the UN this year.

Topics on the agenda of the annual Humanitarian Affairs Segment – held fully via video-teleconference this year for the first time ever – ranged from the current humanitarian landscape considering the impacts of COVID-19; sexual and gender-based violence; durable solutions and protection for internally displaced persons; and ways in which new technology and innovation are making humanitarian work more effective.

The Segment was preceded by the ECOSOC event on the transition from relief to development, which focused on the multidimensional and interconnected challenges in the central Sahel region. Side events held on the margins of the Segment discussed challenges and progress in areas such as anticipatory action; mental health and psychosocial support; and child protection.

The theme for this year’s Segment was “Reinforcing humanitarian assistance in the context of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations: taking action for people-centred solutions, strengthening effectiveness, respecting international humanitarian law and promoting the humanitarian principles”.

Participants included representatives from UN Member States, UN humanitarian agencies, humanitarian NGOs, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, the private sector and other humanitarian partners, with official sessions being broadcast on UN WebTV.

Central to the discussions was the importance of community engagement and working with local actors. This year’s participants included several local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which highlighted actions being taken on the front lines to assist the most vulnerable people globally.

Combating and preventing sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises

One such participant is Fatima Shehu Imam, Founder and Executive Director of the Rehabilitation Empowerment and Better Health Initiative, a network of civil society organizations in Borno State, Nigeria. She spoke at the high-level event on Combating and preventing sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises, held on 9 June, which highlighted the disproportionate impact of humanitarian crises on women and girls and called for strengthened collective action by Member States and humanitarians to dedicate resources and services and to strengthen implementation of legislation, policies and programmes that mitigate, respond to and prevent gender-based violence.

Ms. Imam emphasized that while a legal and policy framework exists to end gender-based violence, more action is needed to implement it.

“What is lacking is the political will to see these commitments implemented on the ground, particularly where women and girls are acutely vulnerable in armed conflict and fragile settings. COVID-19 has heightened global awareness that there is another silent pandemic that is killing women and girls called GBV – and it is everyone’s responsibility to end it,” she said.

Noting that greater investment in GBV coordination is delivering improved outcomes on the ground in Nigeria, Ms. Imam underscored that women and girls must be put at the centre of all humanitarian responses.

“We are the experts on the ground well before the crisis erupts, who stay and deliver, and who will be there long after the crisis passes. Our local knowledge, trust in the communities we serve, and deep appreciation of social and cultural norms is essential if efforts to end GBV and take a survivor-centred approach are to succeed,” she said.

Also speaking at the event was acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who highlighted that women and girls have historically been suppressed and that more needs to be done collectively. 

“I think there is a male entitlement towards female bodies. It’s a global epidemic,” she said.

She also emphasized that it is necessary to make women’s stories universal, and hear their stories and experiences.

“We need to start listening to women. We need to hear them,” she said.

Saving lives, building trust, and informing humanitarian action

Speaking at the side event on Saving lives, building trust, and informing humanitarian action: How good practice and lessons learned from community engagement can help beat COVID-19, held on 10 June, Claudine Tsongo, Coordinator of Dynamique des Femmes Juristes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), highlighted that lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak informed that there is a gender element in health emergencies, as there is with the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, she noted that during the Ebola crisis, women played a key role in ensuring prevention measures at home, and that in the DRC, the medical structures and actors at the community level were well prepared to respond. 

Also speaking at that event was Patience Mgoli Mwale, Learning and Advocacy Manager with CARE Malawi, who focused on the promotion of digitalization and community score cards as an innovative model to improve health services. The approach can help communities understand their rights and become equipped with tools and solutions based on their particular priorities.

Mobilizing action for internally displaced persons

At the high-level panel on Mobilizing action to improve humanitarian assistance for internally displaced persons and achieve durable solutions, held on 11 June, Veronica Ngum, Gender Officer with the Coordinating Unit of Associations of Persons with Disabilities in Cameroon, discussed a range of services that are needed to provide humanitarian support to people with disabilities who are also internally displaced. Emphasizing that people with disabilities are often dependent on others, and more likely to be unable to access services, she further explained that with the COVID-19 pandemic, people with disabilities are even more vulnerable.

Ms. Ngum also advocated for an increase in sex, age and disability disaggregated data and called for more adequate and sustainable funding for support to responses tailored to people with disabilities, including the displaced.

Call to Action

At the end of the annual event, Ambassador Omar Hilale, ECOSOC Vice-President and Chair of this year’s Humanitarian Affairs Segment, launched a Call to Action in support of the humanitarian response in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes 13 concrete and practical actions that the global community should take to address the challenges of the pandemic.

At the time of its launch, the Call to Action in support of humanitarian response to fight the COVID-19 pandemic had 128 Member State signatories, and it remains open for additional Member States to join.

Since 1998, the ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment has been an essential platform for discussing the activities and issues related to strengthening the coordination of the humanitarian assistance of the UN. The segment provides a key opportunity for Member States, the UN system, development organizations, the private sector and other humanitarian partners to discuss emerging and pressing humanitarian issues.