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New aid bible to protect women and girls’ rights

Aid agencies risk violating, rather than protecting the rights of people in disaster zones, experts warn.

A new standards bible to improve charities and aid worker’s response to catastrophes like earthquakes and armed conflict has just been launched.

The latest Sphere Handbook – widely thought of as the textbook example for aid work – includes a fresh chapter on ‘protection principles’, which urges charities to think about the wider impact of their actions. 

People in disasters have basic needs like food and water, but aid work is not as simple as service delivery,” said Marie Staunton from children’s charity, Plan UK, which hosted the launch last night (Thursday).

Humanitarian workers also have a wider responsibility for the human rights of the people they are meant to be helping – such as their right to freedom of movement and their right to a healthy environment.

These rights could be limited or violated by the relief they receive, if it is delivered in an inappropriate way,” she explained. 

The most vulnerable, like women and girls, are especially at risk.

The Sphere handbook, Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, asks aid workers to think through the tough moral dilemmas they face. 

In the Ivory Coast the United Nations has appeared to take sides in the conflict,” said the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop.  

Local organisations that were supposed to distribute aid to areas held by Gbagbo’s forces on behalf of the United Nations refugee agency were forced to return the aid to the organisation.

Now too few impartial and independent humanitarian agencies are present on the ground in Ivory Coast,” he adds.

Too many aid agencies that were in development mode withdrew their international staff and did not replace them with emergency teams. The Sphere handbook, with its stress on the rights of people caught up in conflict and disasters, calls for aid workers to analyse these complicated issues more closely.

As many as 650 experts in more than 300 different organisations in 20 countries had a hand in the new Sphere Handbook, which is now in its third edition.

The handbook sets up shared principles and a set of minimum of universal standards in key areas of relief work. 

The new guidelines encourage aid agencies to work with local people and address emerging issues such as climate change.  

Sphere aims to boost the quality of aid that people hit by natural disasters and armed fighting receive, while also encouraging aidagencies and charities to be more accountable.

The Sphere standards are the benchmark for ensuring humane and fair humanitarian assistance to people in need around the world,“ said Baroness Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. 

I hope that all organisations that provide humanitarian aid will become familiar with the standards and use them.  This will improve the quality of humanitarian assistance to survivors of disasters and conflicts.

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