27ème Conférence
de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge

Statement Of Catherine Bertini, Executive Director, World Food Programme

27th International Conference Of The Red Cross And Red Crescent, Geneva, 1 November 1999

Men wage war -- women and children suffer the consequences.

It has been the case for centuries. What is new today is that violence targeted at civilians is rising again as a deliberate tactic in war. In the last decade, more women and children have lost their lives in conflict than soldiers. In the last two years, more humanitarian workers than peacekeepers have lost their lives.

Much of the progress that had been made in honouring the Geneva Conventions seems to be unravelling. That is why this Conference. s emphasis on issues like full compliance by all parties to an armed conflict with their obligations under international humanitarian law to better protect and assist the civilian population and other victims is SO important.

Your work here this week, the pledges each federation and government makes, and ultimately, the implementation of those pledges - all of this is critical to the strengthening of basic humanitarian principles of protection.

I am afraid that we are, tragically, developing a new category of victims - humanitarian workers. Just two weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a young Dutch logistics officer, Saskia van Meijenfeldt, an idealistic and compassionate young woman who was executed in an IDP camp in Burundi.

Just last Saturday, I understand that two Red Cross staff members and 25 civilians lost their lives in Chechnya. I pay tribute to all of them, and every humanitarian worker who has been killed while helping others, and on behalf of WFP, I send our condolences to ICRC and to the Federation and to the families. I hope that the outrage in the international community over their deaths will result in action - finally - to uphold the basic principles of the Geneva Convention for the protection of humanitarian workers.

Women as Victims

Women suffer most in humanitarian crises. Mothers and their young children are the first to experience the pain and humiliation of hunger and homelessness in the midst of civil war and the emotional and physical pain that accompanies the brutality. Eight out of 10 victims of political violence are women and children. We have all seen this too many times.

It is hard -- even for seasoned humanitarian aid workers -- to imagine the depth of pain and hopelessness so many women feel in the midst of such violence. What we can do is bring an end to their sense of hopelessness by making them our highest priority in offering aid and by giving them control of as much of that aid as we can.

Reaching women with emergency assistance, including food aid, is crucial not just to empower them and combat their sense of hopelessness, but for successful strategies to help communities cope with crises. One consequence of humanitarian emergencies is a dramatic increase in the number of female-headed households. In many cases, women and teenage girls are the sole providers of food for their families. At the same time, the greater burden on women for finding food, shelter and so on, is worsened by their decreased access, when compared to men, to resources such as relief commodities, credit, seeds, tools and productive land.

Nearly three out of four emergency victims are women and young children. Yet how many of us here who work in emergencies can say that we plan all our interventions, the types of rations we use, or the camp and cooking supplies we buy with that basic fact in mind?

UN humanitarian agencies, the NGOs, ICRC and the Federation members need to reassess what they do in every detail. At every step along the way, we all need to ask, "How will this affect the victims who are women? How will this lessen rather than add to their burden? Is there some way we can design our emergency interventions to help women recover both socially and economically? Is there some way we can give these women a sense of control and hope for their families?"

But will a focus on women work as an aid strategy? Women may be the leading victims of humanitarian emergencies, but is targeting aid on them really effective? They may be at the heart of the problem, but are they part of the solution?

A Basic Strategy

At WFP, we are encouraging our field staff and our partners, to follow guidelines on involving women in assessing food aid needs, distributing food to households, and monitoring distribution. We are pleased to have such an agreement with ICRC.

Particularly in emergencies like Rwanda-Burundi or Kosovo, the easy way out in delivering food aid is to use the existing community governance -- the male power structure, for want of a better term. In such cases, much of the food often does not get to the victims - at least, not for free. But we want to see more food distributed by and to women and we want to see women engaged at the outset in the designs and plans for local emergency operations and food aid used in development. And we have seen time and time again that if food is distributed to heads of households, mostly women, most of that food is consumed by those for whom it is intended.

This has been controversial at times. I recall seeing southern Sudanese men complaining on CNN about how women were being given WFP food that would normally go through tribal leaders. Frankly, I was pleased to see the complaints -- they showed the system was working at least in Sudan.

There are tremendous advantages to this approach of targeting women with humanitarian aid. For example, female-headed households may be the only remnant of social structure left in an emergency. A household with a mother, involved in her community both socially and economically, is far more likely to withstand the strain of physical uprooting or a sudden loss in normal food supply channels.

At the same time, women are for better or for worse, far less likely to be a part of local political problems or agents that perpetuate them and, therefore, are less suspect conduits for aid. They are likely to put their immediate families first, and less likely to be drawn into the game of using food as just another weapon in ethnic or tribal conflict.

Women are a logical conduit for humanitarian aid in emergencies because of their widespread role as food producers. Most people are unaware of the large role women play in agriculture, especially in a number of areas where there are ongoing major humanitarian crises. Eight out of 10 farmers in Africa are women and 6 out of 10 in Asia. Women are, in fact, the sole breadwinners in one household in three worldwide. We need to strengthen their economic role in recovery measures and not design interventions in the field that treat them as passive welfare recipients, rather than active participants in the economic system.

And finally, and most importantly, women are the people in the household most committed to addressing that every member has access to food to consume. Unless we get food to women, we will never effectively end hunger.

To be frank, we have to work very hard to get cooperation in making women a priority from local authorities or national governments, and even from some NGOs and other international agencies. A concerted effort to focus on women means change and many of us resist change.

It is so gratifying to see the Red Cross movement involved in important initiatives on behalf of women, and including women in peace mediation, in decision making, in humanitarian assistance and its special attention to women as victims. The strong emphasis at this Conference and ultimately, on implementing strong, practical policies that reflect the fact that most adult victims are women and that the women are the glue that can make all the difference in families and communities.

Congratulations to Cornelio Sommaruga and Astrid Heiberg for all their efforts in addressing the gender dimension of humanitarian assistance. And let me take the opportunity for a moment to thank you, Cornelio, for being such a great moral voice and effective leader for the time you have headed ICRC and, even more, for being such a wonderful colleague and friend. We are all fortunate that, in this decade of the nineties, the world has one consistent, strong, vocal, uncompromised advocate for all conflict victims throughout the world - Cornelio Sommaruga. We will miss you, but we are stronger because of you.


All of us working to reach out to the victims of humanitarian crises need to place a major emphasis on women. Women and their young children are the first to suffer when a nation is seized with violence. They must now be first in line when we provide humanitarian aid.

If there is anything to learn from the Rwandan mothers and their children of bad memories, from the Angolan street children, from the young Kosovar rape victims -- it is the strength of their human will to survive, search for hope and move on. Despite the rising violence against our own colleagues in the field, all of us in the aid community -- the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the UN agencies, our NGO partners -- must match that strength. We must search together for better solutions, so that when men wage war, women and children need not suffer so much any more.

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© 1999 | Anglais (page d'accueil)


Cornelio Sommaruga, CIRC

Astrid Heiberg, Fed.Int.

Louise Fréchette, O.N.U., Secrétaire Général Adjoint (Anglais)

Gro Harlem Brundtland, OMS

Catherina Bertini, PAM

Carol Bellamy, UNICEF