Speech: Keep Her Safe: protecting girls and women in emergencies


I want to thank everyone for being here today.

When a country is in crisis the people in this room lead the humanitarian response – providing desperately needed food, medicine and shelter, in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

But we’re here today because there has been a serious gap in our disaster planning – a hole where protecting girls and women should have been.

For too long we haven’t prioritised, we haven’t adequately funded, we haven’t found the right ways of keeping girls and women safe in emergencies. It’s been seen almost as an optional extra, not the life-saving intervention that it really is.

And violence against girls and women is a global pandemic – one in three women is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime, a terrible statistic. And during conflict and humanitarian crises, all forms of violence against women dramatically increase.

It’s well documented how sexual violence against women becomes another weapon of war in armed conflicts. It’s estimated one third of the women in Sierra Leone faced sexual violence during the conflict that took place there.

And it’s not just war which puts women at risk. The fragile systems and structures that keep women safe can quickly shatter during a natural disaster. Sexual exploitation, trafficking and early and forced marriage invariably increases as a result of displacement and economic hardship.

We’ve seen how past emergencies in the Philippines have led to a sharp spike in violence against girls and women, and trafficking in particular. Now thousands more girls and women have been left painfully vulnerable in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Some will have lost everything, their homes, their friends, even their families – and without our help, they will be subject to further abuse.

In Syria at the moment, we’re hearing escalating reports of domestic abuse, brutal sexual and gender based violence, forced and early marriage of girls as young as 13.

Earlier this year I met Syrian girls and women in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, who had suffered sexual violence and abuse. And what strikes you is the layers of misery that these women have to endure. They’ve been through so many horrors – they shouldn’t have to go through more.

And it’s not just the physical harm that is so damaging, there will be mental scars. These are much more hidden but can have even longer lasting effects, not just on the victim herself but also on her family.

Investing in the future

In fact we know that girls who experience violence are less likely to complete their education. It reduces women’s ability to earn a living. And it significantly increases the risk of maternal death and vulnerability to HIV and AIDS.

But away from these bleak statistics, there is another picture of hope – which is captured brilliantly in the International Rescue Committee’s Vision not Victim photo exhibition on display here. This project shows girls in Eastern Congo visualising a future where they are doctors, journalists, architects, teachers. In these pictures, in the strength and courage of these girls - you can see their country’s hope for a better future.

And that’s why I believe investing in girls and women, tackling the violence, isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do too, and it’s crucial to a country’s development.

Giving these girls and women a chance to fulfil their dreams, to reach their potential, will lead to incredible returns not only for them personally, but also for their families, communities and countries.

The Communique

But far too often we are not investing in girls and women - for example, out of $1.4 billion funding requested for the emergency in Haiti in 2010, only $5 million - that’s less than one percent - was earmarked for addressing violence against girls and women.

So little has protecting girls and women in emergencies been a priority in the past, that even the most basic steps for preventing violence got forgotten – things like having separate toilets for women that can be locked from the inside, adequate lighting at night and making sure girls and women can access food, water and fuel safely. Simple things, but massively important things.

This has started to change and we are now seeing increasing attention to violence against girls and women in crisis situations – DFID, my own department, has made preventing violence against girls and women a top priority, but it needs an international effort.

We need a complete overhaul in our crisis planning and response, to ensure prevention and response to violence against girls and women is implemented from the very first phase of a humanitarian emergency - and right through the life of a crisis.

The good news is that here today, in this room - we have the global leadership to drive the kind of transformational change that is needed –

And today key actors from government, the UN, NGOs and Civil Society, are signing up to a ground-breaking communique which is based on the principle that keeping girls and women safe is a life-saving priority in an emergency.

Five ways to deliver change

So what practical actions must we take to keep girls and women safe in emergencies? After consulting widely we have identified five key overlapping areas where work needs to be done:

The first area is preparation. It’s no good taking a wait-and-see approach in an emergency setting – we already know girls and women will be in danger, we know they are vulnerable, and the onus is on us to keep them safe.

That’s why in our response to the current crisis in the Philippines, the UK is prioritising the protection of girls and women from the start.

When the typhoon struck we activated the UK’s new Rapid Response Facility, a network of specialist aid organisations and private businesses who can get aid on the ground quickly. All our partners are being required to assess the risk of violence to women and girls and address their specific needs. We have also deployed a protection specialist as part of our field team.

We will also provide special supplies that we have warehoused for emergencies like this, including solar lanterns with built-in mobile phone chargers for remote and vulnerable communities. These allow women and girls to move more safely after dark and increase channels of communication which will improve the safety of women and girls.

I know the International Committee of the Red Cross are also taking action to ensure measures are in place to protect girls and women from the start of a crisis.

Each of their field delegations must now assume that sexual violence occurs in every armed conflict, or situation of violence. This means they will immediately start to work with the authorities and security forces to help prevent sexual violence from happening, and trained staff will also provide comprehensive health and psychosocial care to survivors.

I’m delighted to announce today that DFID will contribute £4million to this important programme.

The second area is getting the right people in place at the right time.

That’s about building a pool of experts who are able to prevent and respond to violence against girls and women on the ground – and can be deployed quickly when a crisis hits. This will require joint working and the US and the UK are already exploring ways to collaborate together on this, including the development and roll-out of training courses and mentoring programmes. I hope other partners will join us over time.

Thirdly, and linked closely to the right people, is the need for the right tools and mechanisms for responding to violence against girls and women.

By March next year, DFID is committed to ensuring all our humanitarian response programmes prioritise keeping girls and women safe. To make this a success, we have already provided training to our humanitarian advisers, and are developing guidance for them, as well as a new Violence Against Girls and Women helpdesk.

Fourthly we need to put the right, tailored programmes in place for every crisis.

At the moment we are hearing terrible reports coming from Syrian refugee camps of forced and early marriage, child labour and survival sex.

It’s really impossible for most of us to imagine the kind of desperate choices some girls and their families are having to make in this situation – they need our support.

So today I am announcing £5.6million for projects in Lebanon and Jordan that will help take the financial load off vulnerable families.

Nor will we forget girls and women who are still in Syria while conflict rages on around them.

I am announcing £3million today for UNFPA to assist 60,000 girls and women in Syria by providing psychosocial and clinical help to survivors, and those at risk of, rape, sexual exploitation and domestic abuse.

I also want to stress today, that as we roll out new programmes, it’s absolutely vital that we provide the lifesaving services that women actually need, rather than what we might feel most comfortable providing.

This means that comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services must not be forgotten.

We know that in a crisis girls and women are more vulnerable to rape and transactional sex. The highest maternal mortality and worst reproductive health is in countries experiencing crisis.

Contraception, prevention and treatment of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and safe abortion are life-saving services, yet they are often ignored in humanitarian responses.

That is why DFID is currently developing a new programme on sexual and reproductive health in emergency response and recovery. As part of this we will help train local services so there is more in-country expertise and experience.

The UK is also supporting UNFPA to provide reproductive health kits for humanitarian emergencies so lifesaving drugs, basic equipment and supplies are ready to be dispatched at the onset of a crisis.

The fifth and final part of this framework is research and innovation. Because this issue has been neglected there is a lack of evidence about what are the best ways to keep girls and women safe - and we need to address this knowledge gap.

I’m pleased to announce today that the UK will invest £9million in the International Rescue Committee’s innovative ‘safe spaces’ project for protecting and empowering adolescent girls in Ethiopia, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This innovative programme gives girls a girl-only space where they can safely meet friends, expand social networks, and learn about important topics under the guidance of a female mentor.

It will also help build an evidence base on how to achieve these results for girls affected by humanitarian emergencies.


There is no single solution to protecting girls and women in emergencies – we need to work in partnership and we need to bring those different elements I’ve just spoken about together, to ensure we are really ready to put the right measures in place as soon as a crisis hits.

I look forward to hearing the commitments other partners can make today. The most important thing about this event is that we follow up and turn our pledges into action – girls and women around the world need action not promises.

And it is critical we make use of the international momentum we now have to work together to make a difference for generations of girls and women.

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