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“Having more women humanitarian leaders will help transform the humanitarian system”: challenges and opportunities for women leaders in conflict and humanitarian health

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Preeti Patel, Kristen Meagher, Nassim El Achi, Abdulkarim Ekzayez, Richard Sullivan & Gemma Bowsher

Abstract

Background: It is estimated that over 40% of the half a million humanitarian workers who provide frontline care during emergencies, wars and disasters, are women. Women are at the forefront of improving health for conflictaffected populations through service delivery, education and capacity strengthening, advocacy and research. Women are also disproportionately affected by conflict and humanitarian emergencies. The growing evidence base demonstrating excess female morbidity and mortality reflects the necessity of evaluating the role of women in leadership driving health research, policy and programmatic interventions in conflict-related humanitarian contexts. Despite global commitments to improving gender equality, the issue of women leaders in conflict and humanitarian health has been given little or no attention. The aim of this paper focuses on three domains: importance, barriers and opportunities for women leaders in conflict and humanitarian health. Following thematic analysis of the material collected, we discuss the following themes: barriers of women’s leadership domain at societal level, and organisational level, which is subcategorized into culture and strategy. Building on the available opportunities and initiatives and on inspirational experiences of the limited number of women leaders in this field, recommendations for empowering and supporting women’s leadership in conflict health are presented.

Methods: A desk-based literature review of academic and grey sources was conducted followed by thematic analysis.

Results: There is very limited evidence on women leaders in conflict and humanitarian health. Some data shows that women have leadership skills that help to support more inclusive solutions which are incredibly important in this sector. However, deeply imbedded discrimination against women at the organisational, cultural, social, financial and political levels is exacerbated in conflict which makes it more challenging for women to progress in such settings.

Conclusion: Advocating for women leaders in conflict and health in the humanitarian sector, governmental bodies, academia and the global health community is crucial to increasing effective interventions that adequately address the complexity and diversity of humanitarian crises.