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A woman’s place

By Caroline Moorehead
That women should play their part across the entire Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is enshrined in countless documents. To what extent have these excellent drafts and resolutions been transferred into reality?

Caritas is a social worker, a Tutsi in her late thirties from a village not far from Kigali in Rwanda. She was away from home last May when Hutu soldiers and militiamen raided her village, clubbed her husband to death, slashed her two brothers and her father with machetes before setting fire to them, and took away four of her six children. When the fighting was over she found their grave, a shallow pit in the earth not far from her house. She recognised their bodies by the clothes.

Caritas now has her two youngest children, her mother and a severely traumatised uncle to support. As the head of her family, she has to find food and water safe to drink, cope with health problems, and work out ways of bringing in a future income, in a world in which humanitarian aid is still largely controlled by men and seldom geared to the specific needs of women like her. She is not, of course, exceptional. The UNHCR estimates that there are some 23 million refugees living outside their own countries and over 25 million more adrift within them. Most of them – perhaps as many as 80 per cent – are women and children.

Caritas was not raped, as many refugee women are. There is nothing new in rape in times of war and flight, but for the first time the scale of violence towards women is being reported and acknowledged. Tens of thousands of women and young girls were raped during the “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia. Thousands of Somali women, who fled into Kenya to escape the fighting, have been attacked and raped by camp guards and armed bandits.

Sexual violence is, of course, only one aspect of women’s particular vulnerability in times of conflict. Contemporary wars, writes Eugenia Piza-Lopez of Oxfam, “are no longer fought on formal battlefields, but in the homes and villages of ordinary civilians.” This means that women increasingly bear the brunt of hostilities in which they play little or no part. Where women have become the sole provider for their families, their safety is crucial. An aid worker in Angola reported to Oxfam that up to 50 single mothers a week were being killed by landmines and in crossfire.

International laws exist to protect women, among them the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, which include special measures to safeguard women during armed conflicts. “What is needed are not new laws,” says Marie-Thérèse Dütli of the ICRC Legal Division, “but respect for existing ones.”

In June 1993, the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights concluded in the Vienna Declaration that full and equal human rights for women should be a priority for all governments, and a Special Rapporteur on violence against women has since been appointed. Countless other agreements and provisions have been drawn up over the years to take into account the needs of women, children and old people. Protective measures for civilians are currently once again under debate, and the UNHCR, the ICRC and the Federation are only some of the many international organisations with excellent and far-sighted policies and documents on how women should be protected and treated.

There is, however, a significant disparity between what exists on paper and the reality. Women remain very vulnerable, and in many parts of the world their needs, skills, expertise and economic potential continue to be bypassed.





Women in the Movement

After the Franco-Prussian war ended in 1871, a number of leading surgeons and doctors who had taken part in the care of the wounded on behalf of the British Red Cross were asked their opinion on the role played by women in times of war. On the whole, the trained nurses received an excellent press. The usefulness of women both as nurses and within the medical and social professions was already being widely recognised by that time, fuelled by crusading figures like Florence Nightingale and soon to be championed by Eglantyne Jebb and the formidable Clara Barton.

About the “ladies”, however, the medical men had severe doubts. These “inexperienced lady volunteers”, who had surged across the Channel to pursue their humanitarian instincts, were judged opinionated, obstinate and disobedient. A Doctor Mayo suggested that in future such ladies should “always be kept with the heavy baggage”. The doctors were fighting a battle that had already been lost. The charitable ladies had come to stay.
Henry Dunant himself had spoken of the influence of women as an “essential factor in the welfare of humanity”, liable “to become more valuable as time proceeds.” The early years of the 20th century saw the consolidation of women’s position within the new Red Cross Societies springing up everywhere from Japan to Russia, two countries in which the Empress and her daughters had special Red Cross uniforms designed for them.

The suspicion that women were being unfairly treated and insufficiently promoted surfaced surprisingly late in the humanitarian world. Not until the UN proclaimed 1975 International Women’s Year and invited States to improve the status of women in matters of equality, development and peace, were many serious questions raised. In the last few years, however, the debate has gained momentum. And nowhere are these issues more alive, more interesting and more fiercely argued than throughout the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement of the 1990s.

Immersed in its past as an essentially Swiss and therefore neutral organisation, the ICRC has long been regarded as a highly conservative institution. Not surprising, then, to find that the issue of equality has mirrored the reluctance of the Swiss nation as a whole to make its female citizens the equals of men. Cautious Switzerland granted women the vote on national issues only in 1971.

However, in 1987, the ICRC, conscious that its image was a strictly masculine one when it came to power and decisions and that the organisation could only benefit from the greater involvement of women, decided to carry out a survey of its own. Madame Renée Guisan, a Member of the ICRC, was asked to search through the archives for indications of how women had fared within the ICRC over the past three decades.

As Marion Harroff-Tavel, the ICRC’s Deputy Delegate General for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, explains: “A distinctly biased picture emerged. Men, quite simply, were doing much better than women. The lower ten ranks of the ICRC were dominated by women, and the top eight almost exclusively by men. No woman had ever been President. All crucial decision-making jobs, particularly those dealing with operations were, and always had been, held by men.”

When all the replies were in and analysed, Madame Guisan drew up a list of 25 recommendations, covering everything from the wording of job advertisements to the greater involvement of women at every level of decision making. Improved policies over pensions, part time work, maternity and paternity leave were drawn up.

Other problems have not proved so easy to solve. “And there is very little that can be done to make a delegate’s job – ready to leave for an emergency within a few hours notice and no idea when it will be finished – adaptable to a woman with small children,” explains Raymonde Schoch in the Human Resources Department at the ICRC. At last count, only a third of the 863 people in the field were women. Of the top 29 jobs in Geneva, two were held by women.

The Federation has never been bound by Swiss tradition or culture, though it has been based in Geneva since 1939. The 250 people who work at the headquarters today come from 51 different nations. However here, too, the end of the 1980s was the moment when gender issues – women as participants in Federation work as well as beneficiaries of it – began to surface.

In 1989 the General Assembly asked the Henry Dunant Institute and the Federation Secretariat to evaluate the role of women in the Movement. A plan of action was adopted to inject gender concerns into all programmes and activities and to increase the number of women in the higher ranks of the Federation. “Given that women and their children form the majority of beneficiaries,” it declares, “women must be integrated into the decision-making structures of the Movement itself.” Today, a Women and Development unit systematically works to build women and their concerns into future programmes.

However, as Françoise Le Goff, Officer in the Europe Department of the Federation, puts it: “It’s all there, both the realization that these issues are important and the willingness to do something about it. But much of it is still at the theoretical level”. She may be overly pessimistic. Trends at both the ICRC and the Federation, at least, point to a slow drift upwards of women into the middle ranks.

To what extent this is true across the whole Movement depends very much on individual National Societies and cultural factors.

Susanna Cunningham is Irish, a former teacher in her mid-thirties, who has been helping set up the new Albanian Red Cross, the original Society having been suppressed in 1959. “Women are playing an important role in many of the social and medical organisations here,” she says. “The President of the Albanian Red Cross is a woman, and women, many of them in their late twenties, head more departments than men.” Susanna Cunningham may experience no difficulties in being a woman, but her life, like that of all delegates in the field, is entirely taken over by her job. She is perfectly aware that her job is not compatible with family life, and that, quite soon, if she is to have children, she will have to find an alternative.

Her experiences in Albania also highlight the immense differences between National Societies when it comes to women. If the newly emerging eastern European Societies show a sense of purposefulness and vigour sometimes lacking in the older Societies in the West, it remains true that in the majority of the 163 National Societies that form the Federation, men continue to hold all the positions of responsibility. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but the most recent evaluation, done in 1990, suggests that in the African National Societies only a third of the women are managers, and that while the Movement as a whole has a roughly equal number of men and women, only a quarter of all members of executive bodies and a sixth of all presidents and general secretaries are women. In the Middle East and North Africa, 30 out of the 34 top positions are held by men.

What of the future?

On the one side, then, the legions of women who need informed and sympathetic assistance; on the other, the issue of how efficiently humanitarian organisations are drawing on the skills of the women they employ.

Within the humanitarian world at large, women are stirring. If the 1993 UN Conference on Human Rights is remembered for anything positive, it is for the hundreds of women’s organisations who descended on Vienna. These campaigning women, from the sprawling, ungovernable cities of South America, from the poorest villages of southern Africa, had come to see what others like them were doing – not just about traditional human rights, but about education, health care, and emergency preparedness. They left Vienna having made friends and forged links; and many felt hopeful.

The developing world today is filled with these resolute women, brave figures ready to take unpopular stands. In Tibet, nuns have been among the most outspoken protesters against Chinese occupation. In Turkey, women journalists have been closely involved in the battle to win recognition for the Kurdish language and Kurdish culture. In Iran a 70-year-old singer called Marzieh, renowned in the pre-revolutionary years for her immense repertoire of songs, has fled to the West to publicise the fate of women and artists under Islamic fundamentalism.

At the international level, fuelled by the concerns of organisations like Save the Children, Oxfam and UNHCR, progress is being made, though usually faster in seminars than in the field. At the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, due to take place in Beijing in September 1995, participants intend to produce a strategy for the emancipation of women everywhere.

Yet there are alarming signs that things to come will bring harder, not better times for women. Recent figures put out by WHO suggest that by the year 2000 over 13 million women will have been infected by HIV. Rashim Ahluwalia, Senior Adviser for Women and Development at the Federation, points out that every year there is a steady drift from rural to urban areas – already put at 20 to 30 million of the poorest people. “The world’s population is estimated to go from 5.76 billion today to 8.5 billion by the year 2025.” The number of refugees, displaced by drought, poverty and violence, is rising inexorably, while across large parts of the world women, victims of discriminatory religious and cultural traditions are continuing to be repressed and neglected. Disasters are multiplying, while ever greater numbers of humanitarian organisations battle over diminishing funds.

Not surprisingly, the growing focus on women within the relief and aid agencies has thrown up new questions about whether men and women bring different skills to humanitarian work. On this subject, women delegates and employees at the ICRC, the Federation and National Societies are clear. “Red Cross humanitarian work is very close to women’s character both in the home and nationally,” says Ludmilla Petravnova, President of the Moscow branch of the Russian Red Cross. “If women had more power they could contribute their strengths in a more positive way.”

“It’s not a question of women doing better,” says Marion Harroff-Tavel. “It’s that all skills are needed and women do have a distinctive contribution to make.” A good example of this was provided by a young woman delegate at the ICRC. “When we make home visits to the families of the detained,” she told me, “contact with their wives is much easier to make when at least one of the delegates is a woman.” Another delegate added that people who have been tortured sometimes find it easier to open up to a woman than to a man.

There is certainly some support from the field for growth in the ranks of women. “As male foreign delegates, we have to set role models in terms of our behaviour and how we deal with women,” says Bob McKerrow, Head of the Federation’s delegation in Afghanistan. “We need to promote fair treatment and encourage respect for women among the men.”

There seems to be a growing realisation that women’s needs have largely been ignored and their skills overlooked, and that women delegates and aid workers are the people best equipped to listen and understand what is needed. This awareness may provide a new dimension in a humanitarian world constantly in crisis, buffeted from one major international disaster to the next.

The fear now is that while the right things are being said within the Movement over gender issues, they are too seldom being acted on. Women still do not have the same power as men, but the ever-increasing professionalism of the Movement demands that this should change.

The spirit is willing, as the saying goes.


Caroline Moorehead
Caroline Moorehead is a biographer and journalist. She is currently writing a history of the ICRC and the Movement for an independent publisher.


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