Ms. Mariama Ali, president of the Niya da Kokari VLSA group. Women Respond in Crisis
Ms. Mariama Ali, president of the Niya da Kokari VLSA group. Tahoua-Niger

Stop Talking and Start Listening: Women Respond in Crisis

By Kalkidan Lakew Yihun, Program Coordinator, Women (in VSLAs) Respond, CARE USA

The ‘Women Respond’ survey by CARE underscores the vital importance of continuously listening to and collaborating with women in crisis situations. Highlighting the resilience and proactive measures women take despite increasing challenges. By actively involving women in decision-making and solution development, CARE’s initiative showcases a successful model for sustainable impact and advocacy, urging the global community to prioritize women’s voices in crisis response and development strategies.

There are few certainties in life, but one I have come to recognize, is that women in crisis will always take incredible action – whether there is outside intervention or not.

As we release the latest findings of our Women Respond survey – a major listening exercise with thousands of women in our Village Savings & Loan Associations (VSLAs) – another fact has become clear. Constantly listening to women is critical. And I don’t mean a baseline and an endline survey and a few check boxes along the way. We need to be constantly talking with women to create solutions with them that support their leadership and contribute to sustainable impact.

Women Respond started as a listening effort during the pandemic to see how COVID-19 was impacting their lives and how they were responding. But since that time, more and more crises have rapidly unfolded that are having the greatest impact on women. Armed conflict. Droughts. Floods. Pest infestations. The list goes on. Despite these increasing crises, this latest survey shows dwindling support for women across the board, whether that’s from the aid sector, funders, or from governments. This is supported by UN data that shows the gap between financial requirements and resources currently stands at $43 billion, the highest ever. [UNOCHA, 2023]

Women have always been the glue that binds communities together, supporting a coordinated response to immediate community needs. But women’s burdens are heavy, and the recognition and support they receive in their lives is limited. Their voices are conspicuously absent from decision-making spaces. They are both the most affected and the least prioritized. This is what makes Women Respond such a critical effort. At CARE, we are one of only a few organizations regularly elevating the voices of women to better serve their needs and respond to their priorities.

By really listening to women, we are beginning to change how women are seen, not as passive recipients of aid but as critical participants in the early recovery of households and communities in crisis. Women in VSLAs have consistently demonstrated their support to members and non-members – allocating personal resources to meet the most immediate needs of members and communities. We found that VSLA groups in all countries are using social funds to support their members financially and to buy food. This latest survey shows us that women are diversifying their incomes (52%), campaigning and volunteering together (40%), and using savings to provide for their families (41%). However, they are also being forced to adopt coping mechanisms that negatively affect them, such as eating less food or selling their assets.

Women told us that the key stress factors affecting them are declining livelihood, children’s food and schooling, and safety – especially in conflict affected areas. In many cases, these stressors are leading to tension and domestic violence. In turn, support for gender-based violence survivors and mental health support is close to none, with health centers barely able to provide basic services.

We are also hearing from women that price inflation, mostly related to food, is contributing to household poverty. This is limiting their ability to save, which they see as an important safety net for their future needs. In response to deteriorating household incomes, we found that women are not asking for aid. They are asking for practical solutions to help improve their livelihoods, such as access to finance, better farming processes and water infrastructure.

While we see a decline in support for women, we are also seeing that women aren’t passively waiting around for humanitarian support. They are all taking action. In Niger, we heard from Mariama, Secretary General of her VSLA who told us that her group had joined forces to develop a collective garden, helping all members to improve their income, food, and nutrition. In Ethiopia, Zenanesh explains how her group is working in the community to prevent forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

For the first time, we included a question on what women would like to see CARE pushing government actors to do on their behalf. Top of the advocacy agenda in all seven countries is: get governments to act on food security. Just as women reported that their earnings are vital to their families’ survival, income generating opportunities is the second highest priority for action at scale. CARE’s advocacy teams are already highly focused on these two areas in influencing the US government, global donors, and country governments.

At CARE we have now embedded Women Respond into our routine monitoring of VSLAs so that we can actively respond to women and develop the support that they want and need. And we are also going one step further. We are giving the data back to the women. So that they too can use it to support their own actions. Women are getting onto local radio and attending meetings with local government – presenting the data to powerholders in their communities. By doing this, they are reinforcing their needs, as well as the incredible action they are taking to change things for the better in their communities. This is advocacy at its best.

Elevating the role and profile of women in crisis will ultimately help the development community better understand the role, needs and priorities of women in crisis and the role of VSLAs in building the long-term resilience of households and communities. I encourage those who are actively collecting data from women to please share it. Even if it’s imperfect. Crises need a quick response. The power of our collective data is already changing lives.

Humanitarian and development programming, and the funding for it, needs to be flexible. We need to center response on women’s voices, while shifting resources to address their specific needs. So, to our peers in the sector and to the generous donors who support our work, my message is clear:

Stop talking and start listening.

Read the latest Women (in VSLAs) Respond survey here.

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