15 Sep 2021

Mitigating gender-based violence risks: how anticipatory action supports safety and access to services for women and girls

Evidence suggests that anticipatory action – using early warning information and flexible finance mechanisms to mitigate the impacts of disasters – can reduce expected increases in food insecurity and poverty due to climate-related disasters. There is also growing evidence that anticipatory action supports affected peoples’ abilities to solve their own problems and better adapt to crises.  

But although there is increasing recognition of the value of gender responsiveness and gender transformation in anticipatory actions, gender analyses of coping strategies, adaptation abilities and risk factors have not yet been fully considered and integrated as non-negotiable interventions. 

Women receive dignity kit
Women receive Dignity Kits from UNFPA, distributed by CARE Bangladesh and a local partner, in Kurigram district, Bangladesh. © UNFPA / 2020

Disasters, conflict and gender inequality

In disasters, women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men. This can be due to a range of factors. Early warning messages are typically less likely to reach women than men, and women and girls have fewer options and less flexibility to flee when facing an emergency; for example, they are less likely to be able to swim or climb than men and boys.[1]

They can also be hindered by social norms around menstruation, a lack of menstrual products, or because they have to stay behind to care for children or elderly relatives who cannot flee [2]. These circumstances are all rooted in prevailing gender inequality and women’s lower status, which means they have less bargaining power and lack access to assets and information. The combined effect is that they are more vulnerable than men when experiencing disasters, hazards or conflict.

Disasters can also exacerbate gender inequality. Evidence suggests that communities under stress adopt more traditional or patriarchal practices. For example, child marriage can increase during crises, as girls are taken out of school to work and support their families; parents may also resort to marrying off girls when they are struggling to meet their basic needs, which often happens during a disaster. And in slow-onset emergencies such as drought, conflict over resources and tensions in households may increase intimate partner violence (IPV) [3].

The effect on the safety, mental health and psychosocial well-being of women and girls, along with their potential to promote resilience and prevent distress, deserve far greater recognition in the design of anticipatory action interventions and impact evaluations. This will help to ensure that anticipatory action supports and strengthens the ability of women and girls to better cope with shocks – and has the potential to mitigate negative coping mechanisms, such as ‘survival sex’ and school dropouts.

To unleash this potential, gender analyses of vulnerabilities and coping strategies must inform actions. In particular, anticipatory action initiatives should systematically integrate an analysis of gender-based violence (GBV). This can mitigate the risk factors that directly result from anticipatory humanitarian action and ensure that services and support across sectors are safe, accessible and in accordance with the IASC’sGBV Guidelines.

UNFPA has articulated several steps to integrate attention to GBV in anticipatory action plans. These include:

  • conduct gender analyses, social norms mapping, and needs assessment across response sectors
  • integrate economic empowerment into GBV standard operating procedures
  • promote the use of cash and voucher assistance in anticipatory action and preparedness
  • set up joint systems with WFP or other UN agencies
  • piggyback on government social transfers and the distribution of cash transfers
  • strengthen GBV coordination structures to facilitate more efficient and effective action
  • monitor the continuity of women- and girl-specific services
  • update standard operating procedures and emergency referral systems
  • mainstream GBV policy into national action plans and legal frameworks. 

Integration of GBV prevention and response in Bangladesh

A CERF pilot project in Bangladesh in 2020 prioritised GBV prevention and response, and the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and rights of women and girls, as key sectoral responses. Funding was used to prepare at-risk communities to safeguard their menstrual hygiene management, and facilitate access to quality GBV services, during the monsoon season. This pilot has been well documented and evaluated as a success [4].

an adolescent girls receive UNFPA menstrual health management kits
In Shaghata Upazila, Gaibandha district, Bangladesh, adolescent girls receive UNFPA menstrual health management kits distributed by Plan International and local partners. The kits include flashcards with helplines to report incidents of gender-based violence and to receive psychosocial support. © UNFPA / 2020

While the triggers were based on a flood-forecasting model, GBV risk factors were addressed in the project formulation and targeting. These prioritised women and girls with specific needs, such as those in female-headed households, women from lower-income groups, and pregnant and lactating women.

To tailor the intervention to specific needs, transgender groups were consulted on the customisation of Dignity Kits, and adolescent girls were consulted about the menstrual hygiene management kits.

“For the first time, we have received … support during the flood. It feels really great when we get considered as a respected community”

Ali,* a 27-year-old transgender person and recipient of a Dignity Kit.

Monitoring reports and independent evaluations indicate that this anticipatory action had an impact on the well-being of women, girls and members of the transgender community – but more evidence is needed to understand the full impact on resilience.

 “During the flood, we were struggling to be safe. I, along with my family, had to stay on the road. I received the Dignity Kit when I was seven months pregnant. The soap and hygiene components were really of great use to me.”  

Rana,* a 22-year-old pregnant mother and recipient of a Dignity Kit.

Bangladesh used a bottom-up approach to finalise its anticipatory action framework for 2021-22, including more consultations to customise GBV and SRH interventions that meet people’s needs and priorities. However, adequate funding is necessary to ensure that this framework, and longer term recovery, is successful. Data show that before, during and after disasters, access to, and the availability of, GBV and SRH services remains limited, because funding for services for women and girls is rarely prioritised. Indeed, the protection sector, which includes GBV prevention and response, remains one of the least funded sectors globally [5].

A girl reads important  information about how to report incidents of gender-based violence
A girl reads important information about how to report incidents of gender-based violence. These flashcards were included in the UNFPA menstrual health management kits distributed in Shaghata Upazila, Bangladesh. © UNFPA / 2020

Integration of GBV prevention and response around the world

The integration of GBV prevention and response measures in anticipatory action initiatives is also under way elsewhere.

  • In Nepal, five UN agencies and partners are working together to deliver anticipatory action. The design phase of this action featured a sector-led process in which women-led organisations and communities were systematically consulted to incorporate locally set priorities. Targeting of beneficiaries included vulnerability criteria such as female-headed households, women with disabilities, and poor households in social protection schemes. The project will provide cash top-ups to women and girls, including pregnant women, to:
    • facilitate access to obstetrics care and GBV services
    • strengthen multi-sectoral response services, with a focus on psychosocial well-being
    • include the distribution of Dignity Kits and reproductive health kits to individuals and facilities.
  • In Somalia, UNFPA’s latest anticipatory action project focuses on GBV and menstrual hygiene management. This includes community awareness raising, information on available services and dignity kits, menstrual hygiene management kits, and cash and voucher assistance to support women’s basic hygiene needs.


Looking forward

Prioritising the rights and needs of women and girls in anticipatory action is the right thing to do – and the smart thing. Anticipatory action has the potential to contribute to positive outcomes at the individual, household and societal levels by protecting lives and promoting resilience. But achieving these outcomes will require a more nuanced analysis of needs, assets and coping strategies, especially in terms of gender analysis. This will help ensure that we reach the most at-risk individuals, with all their diversities.

There is also a need for more impact evaluations of anticipatory action initiatives, to understand the return on investment to well-being and safety perceptions at the individual and household levels. This evaluative evidence will shed light on how anticipatory action can help to reduce household tensions, lessen the risks of intimate partner violence, and potentially prevent or reduce negative coping mechanisms.

Finally, in anticipatory action, it is critical to systematically partner with communities, including women-led organisations and first responders, to help people prepare for and adapt to shocks. The humanitarian and development communities share a collective responsibility to consider, in a more systematic manner, the needs of women, girls, men and boys in all their diversities. This will help us to realise our commitment to uphold human rights, meet people’s needs, and leave no one behind. 

* The names for quotes have been changed.

This blog was written by Caroline Haar with contributions from UNFPA  colleagues in Bangladesh: Rumana Khan, Abu Raihan, Murshida Akter, Aramide Wuraola Odutayo and Arthur Avtandiliyan and Nepal: Alisha Ghimire and Santosh Chheteri.

Read more on GBV and Anticipatory Action and GBV here and GBV and Climate Change here.

Additional resources

[1] OCHA (2021) Acting Before the Flood: An Anticipatory Humanitarian Action Pilot in Bangladesh

[2] FAO (2020) Applying an Inclusive and Equitable Approach to Anticipatory Action.

[3] GBV AoR Helpdesk (2018) Prevention of, and Response to Gender-Based Violence in Settings Affected by Natural Disasters

[4] See, for example: UNFPA (2020) Safeguarding Menstrual Health During Floods and OCHA (2021) Collective Anticipatory Humanitarian Action for Monsoon Flooding - Bangladesh (Interim Report).

[5] In 2020, only US$63.5 million of the US$409.2 million required to prevent, mitigate and respond to GBV was funded.  In 202, the requirement stands at $522.6 million. Source: OCHA Global Humanitarian Overview 2021

Here are some photos from the first CERF allocation for anticipatory action in Bangladesh 2020: https://ocha.smugmug.com/Countries/Bangladesh/July2020-CERF-Anticipatory-action-on-floods/n-gR22wf/i-zHnWd8L