Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’, the theme for the centenary of this global celebration and call to action, was the broader backdrop of the first ever Roundtable to discuss organisational barriers to women’s leadership in the humanitarian system. Organisational culture across the conflict and humanitarian health domain significantly hinders women pursuing leadership roles. The COVID-19 pandemic has already proven to be a global threat to hard won progress in gender equality and equity. How the humanitarian system responds to this challenge is critical for women’s leadership.

The Women Leaders in Health and Conflict Initiative celebrated International Women’s Day 2021 by convening an online roundtable with women from around the world including Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Kenya, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. Participants drew on their experiences and analysis of a wide range of organisations including national and international NGOs, the UN, funders, health services and academic institutions.

Common measures were identified to advance, integrate and institutionalise women’s leadership.

  • Stronger commitment to women’s leadership with purpose; that is the transformation of humanitarian system to better meet the health needs of those affected by conflict and humanitarian emergencies.
  • Improved governance and accountability both within humanitarian organisations and in their programmes to fully implement gender equality and equity policies.
  • Development of ambitious metrics using disaggregated data to transparently measure progression of women’s leadership; and donors’ sanctions for organisations that do not deliver agreed outcomes.
  • Provision of needs-based supports for women throughout their leadership journey from young and emergent leaders (to ‘build the pipeline’) to senior leaders.
  • Articulation of a values-based model of women’s leadership that addresses power differentials between the global north and global south and adopts an intersectional lens to diversify and support women leaders.
  • Partnership with community-based women to encourage their self-recognition as leaders, and their advocacy for gender equality and equity.
  • Investment in systemic development of mentoring programmes.
  • Funding of research into women’s leadership in health and conflict including the impact of increasing values-based women’s leadership.

This agenda will be presented in greater detail in a Research for Health in Conflict – Middle East North Africa policy briefing.

By Dr. Iris Elliott FRSA, Visiting Scholar University of Cambridge (January – March 2021)


Participants included Dr. Iris Elliot, Kristen Meagher, Prof. Preeti Patel, Dr. Weeam Hammoudeh, Kate Sutton, Dr. Ola Fahham, Dr. Nassim El Achi, Jasmin Lilian Diab, Dr. Michelle Lokot, Dr. Neha Singh, Joanina Karugaba, Israa Mohammed