A crisis of truly biblical proportions now faces the international community in the Horn of Africa. More than 12 million people — over half the population of Australia — are in need of urgent help because of famine and drought.
In July, I visited Somalia and saw first-hand this looming catastrophe. It was clear to me that if the international community works together — and fast — we can save hundreds of thousands of lives.
A striking feature of the crisis is that women are disproportionately its victims. The United Nations estimates 80 per cent of refugees in the region are women and children. These women walk for days with their children, enduring danger and hardship, to find refuge. What they find are overcrowded camps, where food is still scarce and violence still prevalent.
They are struggling to access some of life's most basic needs.
The survival of children often depends on their mother's ability to feed them, and when food is scarce, women are often the last to eat. When there is no water, women spend much of the day collecting water — leaving little time to care for children or earn income.
There is often little security for these women on their journey to these refugee camps — or when they arrive. They are at risk of rape and assault. Women and girls are often targeted by bandits when they venture outside camps to collect firewood and water for cooking.
According to CARE, in Daadab refugee camp there have been four times as many reported incidents of sexual assault in the first half of this year compared with the previous year.
When women are at risk, children suffer. When women are malnourished, families suffer.
Australia is the world's fourth-largest country donor to the Horn of Africa, providing nearly $100 million in humanitarian assistance. We are working with our partners to make sure we assist the most vulnerable.
But the world's response to this disaster needs to focus not only on the short term but on what we can do to help these communities survive over the longer term. Critical to long-term relief is our work with this region to build long-term food security.
Women are estimated to grow 80 to 90 per cent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa. Through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, women in Africa are learning how to make their farms more productive, how to grow food more efficiently and how to better withstand the inevitable drought that afflicts this region. Australian-funded programs are showing women farmers how to boost their yields of maize and legumes, which are vital to both their income and diet.
In Africa, as in the rest of the world, women's progress is inextricably linked to community, national and global prosperity.
Because of this, women need to be central to global aid efforts. Not only in the worst of circumstances, such as the Horn of Africa, but throughout the world. Economies grow more strongly and communities flourish when we invest in women. Alongside men, women strengthen their county, increasing its productivity, with equality leading to great rewards for entire communities.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the launch of UN Women in February: "Investing in women is the right thing to do and a smart thing to do — possibly one of the smartest things we can ever do."
Study after study shows development assistance is more effective when women are central to the aid investment and that by improving women's economic opportunities we can strengthen families' resistance and ability to cope with crises. That's why the government's response to the Aid Effectiveness Review has put women at the centre of Australia's global development agenda.
We need to increase our efforts to ensure equitable access to health and education. We need to help improve the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls. We need to work much harder to encourage greater participation by women in politics, decision-making and peace-building.
Even in the dire conditions of the Horn of Africa, we are making a start on building a better longer-term future for women and children. Through our partnership with aid organisations, we are not only helping fund emergency food, water and shelter, but projects that make a difference for decades to come – vaccinations, schools in refugee camps and better sanitation.
But there is a lot more we, along with the rest of the world, need to do.
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