Shaping the future: Our strategy for research and innovation in humanitarian response.

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Women holding hands who've participated in the Healing in Harmony music therapy programme, spurring community-wide conversation about sexual violence and gender inequality. Credit: Platon

International Women’s Day is on 8 March and this year’s theme is #EmbraceEquity, encouraging people to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness about discrimination and take action to drive gender parity. 

In humanitarian crises, women frequently experience more adverse effects than men, such as gender-based violence or an impact on their sexual and reproductive health. Research and innovation have a key role to play in contributing towards advancement in gender equity in humanitarian settings and we can play a role in identifying challenges and funding research and innovation for evidence-based solutions.  

Achieving equality in the digital age

A key theme to the UN’s 67th Commission on the Status of Women and International Women’s Day is innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. The rise of tech-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) has given a new platform to old forms of violence against women such as threats, defamation and smear campaigns and has the potential to accelerate their pace and amplify their reach. In our recent blog, we explore how technology can provide new ways of responding to gender-based violence (GBV) but also creates new forms of harm.  

“Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women” states the UN resolution designating an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Our gap analysis of gender-based violence in humanitarian settings identifies both operational and systemic challenges faced by the sector, acknowledging the diversity of needs across the sector to achieve positive outcomes for women and girls. 

Equity in sexual and reproductive health

32 million women and girls of reproductive age are living in emergency settings and delivering accessible, quality, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health (SRH) is increasingly complex and requires more creative and improved interventions. We commissioned a report to understand how the SRH community of practice understands innovation, and maps innovative interventions against SRH research gaps and needs. 

There are also vast gaps in SRH interventions in marginalised groups such as older and disabled people and members of the LGBTQIA community. Cost-effective, evidence-based SRH interventions that are routinely delivered at the lowest levels of health care systems in lower and middle-income countries (LMICs), are often not introduced in humanitarian settings. In our blog we address whether innovation in SRH can drive evidence based change. 

Celebrating our research partners and grantees 

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are championing the role that our research partners and grantees play in advancing gender equity in humanitarian innovation, as well as asking them what embracing equity means to them.   

Dr Julie Watson is a HIF grantee and researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Julie’s work predominantly focuses on designing and evaluating behaviour change interventions to reduce the risk of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) related diseases in low and middle-income countries, including in humanitarian settings. At present, she is the Principal Investigator (PI) for a large study evaluating the effects of a novel handwashing intervention – ‘Surprise Soap’ – among refugee and internally displaced children in Sudan and Somalia. 

“Embracing gender equity means an active willingness to create, accept, and adopt policies and norms that enable women to achieve full equality. That means eliminating the ‘glass ceiling’ – invisible barriers that prevent women progressing to the highest research positions and rejecting informal norms that may undermine equal chance. Gender bias, unconscious or not, can trickle down into our research so it is vital that there are women in leadership positions also steering the research agenda to ensure women are fairly included and represented in our research and, most importantly, that they will equally benefit from the findings.”

Professor Rana Dajani is a professor of molecular biology at the Hashemite University in Jordan and is currently a visiting professor at the systems awareness centre at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Morse fellow at Yale University. She has also created a mentoring programme to support women scholars in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that was recognised by the National Academy of Sciences.   

“Make sure every individual is part of the team. From the start include all stakeholders in the design, measurement, data collection and analysis. Ensure equal power dynamics in every team and in all your work. Listen to others and trust and respect them. That is how good science is done.” 

Daniele Lantagne is a Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University, specialising in water, sanitation, and hygiene. Over the past 22 years, she has provided technical assistance and research in more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia, and Central/South America in both development and humanitarian response contexts. She has published over 100 papers on water supply, water treatment, hygiene, and sanitation in low-income countries and humanitarian contexts.  

“Working in WASH to prevent the spread of disease, what equity means to me is: 1) ensuring all research questions are designed collaboratively with international and local partners, who all have ownership in the research; 2) ensuring all research results are disseminated in multiple formats (including in easy-to-read fact sheets), and results are used in evidence-based decision making to inform policy; and, 3) centering humans in the research, from appropriate sampling methodologies to hearing people where they are to always remembering it is humans behind the data.” 

Beth Kangwana is a public health epidemiologist, specialising in research that focuses on co-creating and evaluating interventions designed to improve adolescent health and well-being in developing countries. She has been a PI and Co-PI on several adolescent-centered studies, including the Adolescent Girls Initiative–Kenya study, a randomised-controlled trial evaluating interventions designed to reduce child marriage and teenage pregnancies in humanitarian and urban informal settlements. 

“As an organisation, PC-Kenya embraces equity by working to create a sustainable future for the health and well-being of all people within Kenya and the region. We work in regions of significant marginalisation, and intentionally collaborate with community-based-organisations that grew out of, and are in the marginalised communities to co-create, test and scale-up proven solutions. In my research field, embracing equity is ensuring that all adolescents have the assets and an enabling environment to make free and informed decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health and well-being, and be able to act on their decisions.” 

International Women’s Day is a key opportunity to spotlight advances made in women’s experiences in humanitarian contexts, yet there is still work to do in achieving gender equality, which should continue beyond 8 March. Inclusivity is a key aspect to achieving gender equity, free of discrimination, and everyone has a part to play in working towards this, including actors in humanitarian research and innovation. 

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