10/12/2015 06:26 GMT | Updated 09/12/2016 05:12 GMT

What Happened to Women and Girls During Typhoon Haiyan?

I was half way across the world from my family in the Philippines when Typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc two years ago. As a Filipina citizen it was hard to see the footage; to hear my family talk about the devastation and the people they couldn't get in touch with. In some ways it was even harder knowing what was going to happen next.

As a humanitarian aid worker and women's rights activist I know that disasters and emergencies put women and girls at increased risk of gender-based violence. Evidence is difficult to come by - in any context reporting violence against women and girls is not easy - but a recent review of evidence found that approximately one in five refugees or displaced women experience sexual violence and that intimate partner violence in humanitarian crises is rife.

The humanitarian community has started to recognise this more and more - we have guidelines, guidance, and protocols for making sure that we prevent, mitigate the risk of and respond to violence against women and girls. Are these guidelines working? Did the humanitarian community take their responsibilities to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls seriously in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan?

As part of the UK Aid-funded research consortium What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls in Conflict and Humanitarian Crises, we carried out a study to find out more. Sadly, the results show that we're still failing women and girls. Despite what we know about the risks they face, tackling violence against women and girls was considered to be a secondary concern rather than a lifesaving priority for women, girls and communities. In the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the humanitarian community didn't ask the right questions about violence against women or ask the right people about what was happening. As such, violence against women and girls was rendered almost invisible to those who were supposed to be responding to the most urgent needs. One person told us:

"There had been rape and kidnappings that were not discovered by any [international organisations] until we did focus group discussions [with local organisations]. By speaking to youth groups we found out that there were new recruiters that were recruiting young girls for prostitution and forced labour since their families were destitute. We also found that women in other organisations were blacklisted from certain evacuation centres since they were raising issues of women. This was also missed by other organisations because they weren't specifically asking local groups."

We found that those involved in the humanitarian response had mixed awareness and understanding of the guidelines that exist to help everyone prevent and mitigate the risk of violence against women and girls. The key issue was a lack of accountability to the guidelines, but more importantly - to women and girls themselves.

Unfortunately this isn't specific just to the Typhoon Haiyan response, but is a common feature across different contexts and different types of emergencies. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), along with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the International Medical Corps (IMC) carried out an evaluation in Lebanon, Jordan, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and Northern Syria earlier this year which had similar findings: there is a lack of implementation of and accountability to the guidelines and the humanitarian community rarely include, engage with, or hold themselves accountable to women and girls in a meaningful, consistent, and routine manner.

In September 2015 the revised Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action were launched. Our research highlighted the challenges that existed in implementing the previous guidelines in the Typhoon Haiyan response and outlined good practice and recommendations to ensure that the implementation of, and accountability to, the new guidelines is better.

Some of the recommendations include better monitoring and evaluation of how projects are preventing violence against women and girls; identifying high-level global champions within the humanitarian system to ensure that violence against women and girls prevention and risk mitigation is integrated in to all parts of the emergency response; and ensuring that UN agencies adhere to the new guidelines throughout all stages of emergency preparedness, assessments and planning.

But what is really needed is a fundamental shift in perceptions of what we mean by lifesaving humanitarian response. Next year there will be the first ever World Humanitarian Summit - a global call to action by the United Nations Secretary-General that brings together governments, humanitarian organisations, people affected by humanitarian crises and other partners to 'propose solutions to our most pressing challenges and set an agenda to keep humanitarian action fit for the future'. As we come to the end of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign and prepare for the World Humanitarian Summit, my hope is that we recognise that one of the most pressing challenges we face in humanitarian emergencies is violence against women and girls. Humanitarian action cannot be fit for purpose if it does not address this. Whilst it is sadly inevitable that there will be another disaster or emergency, it does not need to be inevitable that we ignore the needs of women and girls and put them at further risk of harm. It's time for us to learn from our mistakes.

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