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When the editors set out to solicit ideas and commission articles for this issue, they were often confronted by the question: When are you going to do a special issue on men? Why are women singled out for special treatment?

Why indeed?

One of the reasons this issue is devoted to women is to underscore the notion of “Dignity for All: Respect for Women” which is the theme of this year’s World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day on 8 May. The subject is also highly topical in light of the current trend in many humanitarian organisations to rework basic strategies in order to enhance the role of women who serve in their ranks, as well as those who benefit from their services.

There are more tangible reasons as well. Despite decades of talk, a marked disparity still exists between the opportunities and choices available to men and those available to women – opportunities and choices not just in the realm of economic and political structures but in terms of basic means of survival.

Women make up 37 per cent of the labour force, but only 12 per cent of administrators and managers in the world are female. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are female. Women comprise up to 80 per cent of refugee and displaced populations worldwide. In many cases they are also single heads of household. More than half a million women die each year from preventable childbirth-related causes.

Women have always been closely linked to the work of the Movement. Henry Dunant, the Movement’s founder, whose birthday we celebrate on 8 May, was inspired by female contemporaries such as Florence Nightingale. The Geneva Conventions contain special provisions for women in times of war. Resolutions focusing on women have been adopted by the Federation’s General Assembly and by the Council of Delegates.

Many countries now have legislation promoting equal rights and oppor-tunities and have introduced measures to integrate women into the decision-making and development processes. But general policies and rhetoric alone are not sufficient to assist women caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, discrimination, poor health, lack of family planning services, illiteracy and displacement.

While it is generally accepted that women have a central role in relief and development, their capacities are not fully taken into account. Women have demonstrated great survival skills and stamina in rising above adversity, and should be seen as a major resource in the search for solutions to crisis.

Closing the gap between de jure equality and de facto reality for millions of women can only be achieved through effective partnership in action between concerned men and women. The articles in this issue seek to highlight the situation of women today, their contribution to humanitarian work and their individual strength and courage. We hope their stories will help provide an impetus for a greater collective effort and commitment by all within the Movement to a better, fairer world for us all.

Rashim Ahluwalia
Senior Adviser for Women and Development, Federation

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