The Deprioritization of Gender and Protection During UNRWA’s 2018 Financial Crisis

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On August 31, 2018, the United States Department of State announced their termination of all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Prior to 2018, the United States government was UNRWA’s largest donor and a leading advocate for the agency’s role in stabilizing the Middle East. Though UNRWA has historically faced funding challenges, the termination of U.S. funding plunged the agency into an unprecedented financial crisis. During emergencies—health, economic, military, or otherwise—gender work has often been relegated to non-essential status, limiting the quality and inclusivity of humanitarian response. This research considers how UNRWA’s gender and protection work was impacted by the agency’s 2018 financial crisis. Ultimately, I find that UNRWA’s institutional structure did not sufficiently value gender work, relegating this approach to non-essential status in crisis and making it especially vulnerable during budget cuts. As a result of these vulnerabilities, UNRWA dismantled gender and protection, ending targeted interventions, oversimplifying mainstreaming efforts, and exporting their work to non-experts. This paper also considers the implications of deprioritizing gender work: increasing gender-based violence, regional instability, and a self-reinforcing cycle of vulnerabilities. Moreover, this paper examines the connection between community and gender-based violence and its relation to violent extremism. Despite the vital importance of gender and protection work, as well as efforts to integrate this work in with other program lines, these programs are seen as nonessential and are routinely hit first and worst during budgetary crises.