Creating Safe Spaces: protection for women, girls, and most vulnerable populations during emergencies

In the face of the Philippines’ complex humanitarian challenges, characterized by hazard-induced disasters and armed conflicts, Action Against Hunger has stepped forward to address the alarming rates of gender-based violence (GBV) and Protection risks, particularly affecting women and children. The organization recognizes that this dire situation not only jeopardizes the well-being of individuals but also weakens the societal fabric, diminishing the capacity to protect the most vulnerable.

The Philippines remains one of the countries most at risk of disasters based on the World Risk Index. Within this complex humanitarian scenario, women and children are disproportionately exposed to the perils of protection risks particularly GBV. Whilst GBV persists before the onset of disasters or conflicts, the risks are intensified in crises where protection structures and mechanisms are disrupted and weakened. According to the 2022 Philippine National Health Demographic Survey (NHDS), one in five women aged 15-49 experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence from their husbands or intimate partners. This figure covers only those who reported and recognized what happened to them as GBV.

Instances of GBV are often underreported, leading to a prevailing misconception that such incidents are uncommon in BARMM. However, women engaged in consultations have revealed distressing experiences, including instances of sexual harassment, coerced marriages, and rape, including cases involving minors, occurring amidst displacement and within evacuation centers. Crises like the occurrence of conflicts or disasters deeply affect communities by disrupting lives, causing trauma, and limiting access to mental health services. These challenges increase vulnerability to GBV as displacement and limited access to basic services exacerbate mental health issues and may perpetuate cycles of violence. Marginalized groups bear the brunt, facing heightened risks. Many individuals express uncertainties regarding how to address or seek assistance for these issues, primarily due to fears of shame, stigma, victim-blaming, disbelief, and potential retaliation, exacerbating the already challenging landscape of mental health in these communities.

Jazmin*, a 39-year-old woman, is currently in a temporary unfinished house that serves as a temporary shelter along with three other displaced families. Jazmin expressed fear and worry over her personal security inside the house. Telling her story, Jazmin shared, “Pakagilek sa kangasilingan ta kagina dala pageletan na kabagiga. Yabu pageletan na kulambo para aden bu lending sa kaped a pamilya uman pedtulog magabi.” (there is only one room in the evacuation center and the only division we have is a mosquito net.)

“there is only one room in the evacuation center and the only division we have is a mosquito net.” – Jazmin, age 39

Another story from a displaced community is about 33-year-old Zainab* who is currently staying in an evacuation center in Maguindanao del Sur. Last December 2023, Zainab along with the people from her village was forced to leave their community indue to violent clashes involving non-state armed groups and the military. Throughout her life, Zainab has faced repeated displacement episodes, triggered by recurrent violent conflicts in her community. The persistent and violent nature of fleeing has taken a toll on her psychological and emotional well-being. For now, Zainab shares her anxiety due to the uncertainty of a safe and dignified return. “Ya nin pedtalon, kadakelan sa lekami na gagilekan pembalingan baguli sabap sa di pon gatawan kanu e kambalingan na military operation” (most of the evacuees are afraid to return to their community due to undetermined military operations). Presently, Zainab, who is in her seventh month of pregnancy, can stay in a secure environment where she can receive tailored humanitarian assistance to their needs.

“most of the evacuees are afraid to return to their community due to undetermined military operations.” – Zainab, age 33

Especially during emergencies, creating safe spaces is paramount. Action Against Hunger calls for stricter implementation of laws and adherence to guidelines advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations, especially those who are internally displaced people or at greater risk of GBV, as well as the establishment of safe spaces for women and children, pregnant lactating women, persons with disabilities, and children in humanitarian response. These spaces offer a safe space for women and vulnerable populations to access protection services and GBV referral pathways.

Action Against Hunger’s intervention in responding to GBV and VAW in the Philippines is a testament to the organization’s commitment to addressing the most pressing issues vulnerable communities face. By taking a gender-transformative approach, Action Against Hunger is not only mitigating the immediate impact of GBV but also working towards creating a safer and more resilient future for all. This exemplifies the organization’s dedication to realizing its vision for a world where hunger and violence are eradicated, and all individuals can live with dignity and safety.

*Disclaimer: The names of individuals mentioned in this article have been altered to protect their confidentiality and privacy.

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Working together with local agencies and LGUs to provide rapid response

“MOVE UP Project, in coordination with the Parang MDRRMO has been instrumental in the delivery of Multipurpose Cash Transfer and Mental Health and Psychosocial Support interventions under its Rapid Response Mechanism to the displaced families affected by armed conflict in GT Biruar. These interventions benefitted the IDPs, especially the most vulnerable who were provided immediate, life-saving assistance,” shares Ms. Norah Mamariong, Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Officer (MDRRMO) of Parang, Maguindanao del Norte.

With funding from the European Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), MOVE UP 5 through Action Against Hunger provided cash assistance and conducted a Mental Health and Psycho-Social Support (MHPSS) Session for Adults who were affected by the recent ‘rido’ in Barangay G.T Biruar, Parang.

Thanks to the support of the Ministry of Social Services and Development – BARMM, MDRRMO of the Municipality of Parang, and the officials of Barangay G.T Biruar, MOVE UP 5 was able to quickly respond to the needs of the affected community.

This rapid response is part of the Moving Urban Poor Communities Towards Resilience (MOVE UP 5) consortium project implemented by Action Against Hunger Philippines, ACCORD Incorporated, CARE Philippines, Plan International Philippines, and Nissa Ul-Haqq Bangsamoro with funding support from the European Civil Protection & Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).

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Real Life Heroes: Nora Landas

Last week, we sat down with Nora Landas, one of our Real-Life Heroes from Barangay Ilomavis, Kidapawan City. Nora shares the struggles of living in an evacuation site and the anxiety and stress that came along with them.
“It is never easy to live in tents. You’re not able to do the things you used to do, and it’s really a different feeling comparted to being in the comfort of your own home,” says Nora.
“How long are we going to be like this?” is a usual sentiment of mothers, young adults, and even children who are living in evacuation and transitory sites. Not only have their lives have changed due to the Mindanao earthquakes, the pandemic has worsened the situation ever since social activities in the sites have been limited.

(Photo by Debbie Olivo for Action Against Hunger)


It wasn’t until Nora and her fellow volunteers applied mental health and psychosocial (MHPSS) care practices that insights in the community started becoming more positive. “The PSS sessions conducted in our respective assigned areas rekindled the social involvement between members of the community.” People appreciated the things they’ve learned from the sessions while at the same time enjoying the company of other parents and adults.

(Photo by Debbie Olivo for Action Against Hunger)

Together with our Earthquake Response Team, volunteers also provided the participants with education and information on nutrition & health.

Nora and her fellow volunteers were trained on a series of community-based PSS Sessions conducted last February by Action Against Hunger Philippines and funded by the European Union. The activity aimed to give equal importance to mental and social health among internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Life-saving Humanitarian Assistance to People Affected by the Mindanao Earthquake is funded by the European Union, and implemented by Action Against Hunger Philippines, CARE Philippines, and ACCORD Incorporated.

Written by Debbie Olivo.