Global Resources

Capacity-Building in Conflict Zones: A Feminist Analysis of Humanitarian Assistance in Sri Lanka

Author: M. de Alwis, J. Hyndman
Publisher: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Publication Date: Jan 2002
The civil war in Sri Lanka has been raging for the past twenty years and has left approximately 800,000 people internally displaced. In this document, Hyndman and de Alwis assess the potential for institutional capacity building in three areas of NGO work: the promotion of income security options for women; prevention and support in cases of violence against women; and the provision of health services and information to women. In times of conflict, such services are increasingly provided by international NGOs (INGOs) rather than governments. This has implications for accountability since INGOs often ignore the intensely political nature of their support in times of conflict. Humanitarian assistance provided through INGOs is also gendered in its design, in terms of the ways that services are provided and evaluations are conducted. If organisations merely use the terms 'women' or 'gender' in an effort to 'include' gender programming in their projects without truly understanding power imbalances that lead to gender inequality in the local context, they will fail to address social, economic and political power structures that hinder progress towards gender equality.

Humanitarian assistance can reinforce gender stereotypes. INGO staff members represent themselves as 'experts' with knowledge and skills to impart to the 'locals', whereas capacity-building should be viewed as a way of engaging and reinforcing local knowledge and skills in order to enhance the security of people's livelihoods. In the context of emergency relief, if food stuff is handed to women and cadjans (temporary shelters) to men, it is implicitly understood that women should cook while men construct the temporary shelters. Conversely, interventions can also be gender blind, meaning they assume assistance will affect all displaced people equally and therefore neglect the needs of women and other minority groups.

The research by de Alwis and Hyndman resulted in these findings:
• INGOs tend to focus on interventions for women that are 'quick' and 'easy'. For example, they provide micro-credit to women rather than skills-training in non-traditional areas.
• Little effort is made to enable local NGOs (LNGOs), through the generation of capital, to be independent of outside funds or to assess the impact of credit on gender relations in the home.
• Giving loans to women or widows without ongoing discussion with the entire community can cause resentment among men who may not have similar access to such credit schemes.
• Women's health is generally addressed only in terms of maternal health. Issues such as sexual health and violence are therefore ignored. However, a few organisations are looking at the psychosocial dimensions of health.
• Many humanitarian organisations appoint female staff as gender co-ordinators, although they may not be trained or interested in addressing gender issues. It also absolves other staff from taking responsibility for promoting gender equality.

However, there are some local and international organisations that have integrated gender and development (GAD) into their work:
• The Suriya Women's Development Centre, a group of displaced Tamil women, has integrated prevention of violence against women into all their projects. The women also educate the public about violence against women (VAW) through songs, posters and street dramas. Suriya co-ordinates the Eastern women's NGO forum, which enables NGOs to share ideas, although travel and security concerns make it difficult to convene meetings.
• The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) helps co-ordinate the NGO forum and insists on equal participation of men and women in the projects they support. In cooperation with INGOS and LNGOs, they have supported courses in welding, bicycle repair, carpentry and mechanics in both mixed classes as well as classes for women only. Training for all participants includes gender training. WUSC also works with the families, employers and neighbours of women about the need to re-examine gender stereotypes.

Lessons learnt and recommendations:
• INGOs need to expand their conception of gender and collaborate with LNGOs, so that gender is seen as part of the design, implementation and evaluation of every project.
• Conflict can provide opportunity for positive social change through transforming gender roles/identities, provided that all members of a community are involved in ongoing consultations and decision-making.
• Developing a network for gender trainers and a central repository for shared resources would be an invaluable asset for international and local NGOs.
• Gender training for male staff by male gender trainers is vital to counter the current trend towards marginalising gender as a women's issue.