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
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
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
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
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.
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 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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