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A woman in a classroom in Central African Republic
Gender equality

Breaking down barriers for women and girls

Women and girls in crisis zones face discrimination, violence, and a lack of equal opportunities that threaten their lives and rob them of their potential at a rate greater than men. The International Rescue Committee is helping them change their futures.

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Photo: David Belluz/IRC

Meet fourteen-year-old Mariama. She’s been forced to flee her home in the Central African Republic because armed groups are threatening her village. 

She recently arrived with her family at a refugee camp in Chad. But that doesn’t mean she’s safe.

She wants to bathe, but she’s heard that women have been attacked in the wash houses because there are no locks on the doors. She wants to see a doctor about the sickness she’s had since fleeing her village, but the health center closes before she finishes her daily chores. She wants to go to school to follow her dreams of becoming a doctor, but her brother is sent instead while she stays behind to look after her younger siblings. She wants to choose when and whom she marries, but her family is considering a proposal from an older man who lives in the camp.

Her future hangs in the balance. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are simple solutions.

Imagine if the camp Mariama lives in was designed with women’s and girls’ needs in mind, so she could enjoy the basic right to bathe without fear. Imagine if the aid organization running the health center knew they should stay open later to help women and girls like her, so she could get the lifesaving medicine she needs.

Imagine if she could be sent to school, so she could grow in confidence and knowledge. Imagine if, instead of being forced to marry and have a baby before the age of 16, she was free to continue her studies. Imagine if she had the freedom to choose her path in life, to become a doctor, to support and inspire her own family and to help rebuild her country.

The IRC is working to change the future for the world’s most vulnerable women and girls, like these girls living with conflict and uncertainty in Central African Republic.

Photo: David Belluz/IRC

At the International Rescue Committee, we are doing more than just imagining a different future for Mariama and countless others. We’re focusing our resources and capabilities to help break down each of the barriers faced by women and girls in crisis zones.

We know that education is essential to women’s futures, but there is not enough of a focus on keeping girls in school. We also know that cash relief can provide women with choice and dignity, and help ease tensions over money and reduce violence at home. And there’s overwhelming evidence that when they are empowered to reach their potential, women and girls can be powerful agents of positive change—but they aren’t always listened to or recognized as leaders who can help their families and communities emerge from crisis.

What is the IRC doing differently?

At the IRC, we help people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover and gain control of their future. We prioritize help for the most vulnerable and, in 1996, we were the first humanitarian aid group to develop an international aid team dedicated to preventing violence against women and girls.

Now, we are leading a mission to end gender inequality in the world’s most dangerous places. We are:

  • Improving access to health centers and giving more women and girls the care they desperately need
  • Developing new projects that support adolescent girls to stay in school and realize their potential
  • Supporting more women with economic empowerment and cash assistance in emergencies 
  • Finding new ways to involve and empower women and girls
  • Changing harmful gender norms to create more equal communities

The IRC is working to get even better at listening to women and girls, like these young refugees in Greece, and will support them to take control of their path in life.

Photo: Kathleen Prior/IRC

We are also addressing inequalities within our own organization. For example, we are:

  • Emphasizing skills and competencies, rather than higher education and management experience (which bias male recruitment), when we post jobs
  • Pledging to ensure the equal treatment, promotion and support of female staff worldwide
  • Offering flexible work hours that help employees balance their professional and personal responsibilities

Read our Gender Action Plan.

How the IRC is working toward gender equality

The IRC will focus on breaking down barriers by solving the biggest challenges facing women and girls.

  • Improving access to health centers and giving more women and girls the care they desperately need: In 2016, the IRC supported more than 14,000 survivors of violence with lifesaving medical care, counseling and legal aid. We will work to innovate, expand and adapt health programs like these so we can reach even more women and girls with medical care that meets their needs. Photo: Peter Biro/IRC

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  • That might include making sure our health centers are open at times that match women’s availability, training male clinicians on gender-sensitive approaches, or equipping local women to act as community-based health workers, so they can diagnose and treat those who can’t easily reach clinics. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Panos/IRC

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  • Developing new projects that support adolescent girls to stay in school and realize their potential: We will grow and build on the projects we’ve pioneered over the last twenty years to support girls in countries like Liberia, Lebanon, South Sudan and Pakistan, and introduce them in countries like Myanmar. Photo: Kellie Ryan/IRC

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  • We’ll not only work with the girls themselves but also with their parents, caregivers and the community to shift harmful attitudes and address barriers to their education and development. We’ll also recruit more female teachers, supporting them to make sure school environments are safe, empowering, and meet girls’ needs. Photo: Shahzad A. Fayyaz/IRC

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  • The IRC will introduce teaching materials that present women in non-traditional, leadership roles. We’ll also help to create positive role models and reassure parents about sending their daughters to school. Photo: Meredith Hutchison/IRC

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  • Supporting more women with economic empowerment and cash assistance in emergencies: We believe it’s our responsibility to give people in need the most effective support. That’s why we’re pledging to deliver more aid to women safely through cash transfers—and encouraging other aid groups to do the same. Photo: Jess Wanless/IRC  

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  • We’ll build on our work in Ivory Coast, where an economic program for women paired with gender discussion groups for their husbands, resulted in a reduction in domestic violence and in women having more control over family finances. And we’ll build on work we’ve pioneered in Jordan with start-up grants for female entrepreneurs. Photo: Timea Fauszt/IRC

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  • Finding new ways to involve and empower women and girls: We believe that women and girls have the right to take the lead in the decisions that affect their lives, and for two decades we’ve been global leaders in equipping and empowering them to build safer, more equal societies. We’ll involve them from the design process through to measuring a project’s success. Photo: Tyler Jump/IRC

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  • We’ll get even better at listening to women and girls, and will support them to take control of their path in life. That also means finding new and more effective ways of reducing early marriages, a real risk for girls living in crisis zones. Photo: Kellie Ryan/IRC

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In order to empower as many women as possible to create real change in their lives, we will rigorously measure the impact of IRC programs—evaluating what works, and what doesn’t—and share what we’ve learned with other organizations.

When men and women and boys and girls enjoy the same rights and opportunities, everyone benefits.