World Humanitarian Day

"We do not want to be defined by the crisis"

On disaster patriarchy and the feminist reconstruction of aid: conversations with two medico partners in Syria and Indonesia. By Radwa Khaled-Ibrahim.

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day. In many places, however, humanitarian aid is discussed mainly because one devastating crisis follows another making every single aid urgent. Haiti, previously the forest fires, the consequences of the Corona pandemic ... . Humanitarian aid, according to its maxim, acts quickly, efficiently and with the aid of alleviating suffering and saving as many lives as possible. So far, so good. In a world of multiple crises and spiraling catastrophes, it is urgently needed. At the same time, this world urgently needs a transformation, a (re)construction. Because, according to an old medico conviction: The world is not suffering from too little aid, but from conditions that make more and more aid necessary. What could or should transformative humanitarian aid look like? One thing is certain: it should be feminist.

A feminist humanitarian aid is one that conceives humans in their wholeness; that builds structures and develops social infrastructures; that includes people's relationships to each other and to their contexts; and that knows and critically reflects that it is operating within power relations. Such aid is the more important because, in the patriarchal world order, women and girls are particularly affected by violence in crises and disasters.  I spoke with two medico partners, who were an are confronted with massive crises, Lian Gogali in Indonesia, and Huda Khayti in Syria, on the necessities and possibilities of a different, feminist aid.  Both work in very different contexts. And yet they meet in the way they approach and provide emergency aid. Their answers reveal the trails that could be followed in the search for a humanitarian aid of the future.

Lian Gogali directs the Mosintuwu Institute on Poso in Indonesia. The institute is an association of people who work for peace during and after conflicts in the Poso regency and its surroundings. Several violent incidents occurred there in the name of religion, behind which were hidden political and economic motives related to the exploitation of the natural resources located there. The victims of these conflicts were, as so often, the poor and marginalized of Poso. The Mosintuwu Institute launched a grassroots women's movement, and one of the first steps was critical education work at the Mosintuwu Women's School. During the earthquake disaster in neighboring provinces three years ago, the institute provided emergency aid.

Huda Khayti is the founder and director of the Women Support & Empowerment Centre in Idlib, Syria. At the centre in the enclave besieged by the Assad regime, activists offer women and girls literacy, English and computer courses, as well as legal counseling and space for meeting and exchanging. Huda Khayti built these structures after the women's center she founded in Eastern Ghouta was burned down during the war. She arrived in Idlib as an internally displaced person and has continued her work there despite the threat from the Islamist terrorist militia Haiʾat Tahrir Al-Sham. Several times a week, Huda Khayti and her team now travel to refugee camps to provide emergency aid. "These people have no voice, they are not seen by the world. If help is not forthcoming, they will die quietly, whether from hunger or disease," she says, describing the situation.

Disaster Patriarchy

Disaster patriarchy functions similarly to disaster capitalism. In the disaster situation, patriarchy finds new ways to expand, allowing multi-layered new forms of violence. One hears elsewhere what our partner Huda Khayti tells "[w]hen the schools closed, for many girls it didn't just mean losing a place to learn. They were also married off so that they could be cut off from the family as an economic burden. Child marriages are particularly difficult, especially when there is no longer a space for reproductive and sexual health information. In the camps, there is also the fact that no official papers are issued. The marriages are therefore not documented. Legally, therefore, it is not possible to take action against them. Another issue is domestic violence. Violence against women and girls increases with the severity of the crisis. Some people think crises bring people closer together. But de facto, the gap between public and private space widens, and with it the allocation and isolation of women and girls to private space." Lian Gogali reports similarly, "In times of disaster and crisis, the binary social roles shaped by colonization are restored and reinforced. Relief organizations also contribute to this by thinking and working within the binary gender system and the roles assigned to each gender."  No surprise: disaster patriarchy relies on what is there, contrasting inequalities and bringing them to a head.

Humanitarian aid acts with the mandate to save as many lives and alleviate suffering as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the process, people are, as Lian Gogali figuratively describes it, " fragmented." Their needs and selves are transformed into manageable units. She gives an example. After the landslides in Indonesia, she says, people who sought refuge in camps were expected to eat what they were given without complaint and to wear clothes that had nothing to do with what they normally put on. They would be treated as victims who must accept what is put in front of them. This may not sound tragic. Nevertheless, it makes a difference to be part of the aid provided or merely an object without any decision-making power of their own.

People as subjects of themselves

Even in emergency aid, one must not overlook "the complexity of people." They must not become mere "victims of survival," according to Lian Gogali. "It's about dignity. As a feminist, I make no distinction between women and men. It's about the human being," says Huda Khayti. That, she says, makes it necessary to navigate the relationships in which people live. Lian Gogali, for example, created community kitchens for those affected after the landslides - in addition to distributing cooked food - although the latter would probably have been "more efficient" in technical terms. "In this way, people can come together, talk to each other in a warm atmosphere about what happened, or simply cook and eat in peace. They can cook what they are used to. You don't have to uproot people from their habits to provide assistance. That's one of the problematic aspects of humanitarian aid as it's usually delivered: people are freed from what immediately happened, but they're held in its ecosystem and uprooted from their selves." Huda Khayti shares this perspective: "It's always about self-care as well. The women don't have to learn anything if they don't want to. The center should be a place where they can also talk about their feelings, sadness, joy or anger, or just be and feel comfortable. It should be a safe and warm place".

In addition, it is important to work within the contexts that exist in the communities. "Of course, I work within the framework of the city and the communities where the women live. It can be very ambivalent. On the one hand there is a repressive regime, on the other there is a minimal space for feminist work. You have to be careful with it. Moreover, we work with women and their structures - not against them, just to impose our ideas of freedom and empowerment," Huda Khayti emphasizes. "We also always have to question our understanding of feminism and adapt it to the circumstances," adds Lian Gogali. One works with and not against the social fabric.

"We don't want to be defined by the crisis"

Towards the end of our conversation, one thing is very important to Huda Khayti: "I want you to write it this way: our work did not start with the disaster, crisis or emergency, and it will not end with them. We don't want to be defined by the crisis. We are working now in times of crisis because that's the way times are. The political circumstances will change, and then we will continue to work, probably differently. But one way or another: Our work is always about building structures, sowing fruitful relationships, and creating places of reason, understanding and safety. I'm a revolutionary, I'm convinced to do this work - whether there's an emergency situation or not."

Published: 19. August 2021

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