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The world is failing women and girls in crisis, but feminism can help

Editor's Note: (David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, is a former Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. View more opinion at CNN.)

(CNN) World Refugee Day is an emotional moment every year. When UNHCR publishes its annual totals on the number of people displaced by conflict and persecution -- this year more than 70 million -- we are forced to confront our failure to bend the arc of history towards justice for millions of refugees around the world.

Today, as I stare at these new numbers and think about the millions of individual lives shattered by crisis, I feel, above all else, frustration that the world continues to fail the women and girls who remain the most marginalized and abused group in any conflict. A report by Equal Measures this month showed that not a single country is on track to achieve gender equality by 2030 -- the target date for conclusion of the UN Sustainable Development Goals -- and in most cases, this threatens the well-being and safety of women and girls. Fragile and conflict states like Chad, Yemen and DR Congo are furthest behind, largely attributed to the level of violence and insecurity endured by women and girls in these settings.

The unavoidable reality is that the world will continue to fail in its commitment to achieve gender equality until we take seriously the power differentials that drive these inequities -- until we take a feminist approach. The successful application of feminist aid will see women and girls equally safe, educated, healthy, empowered, consulted and in control of resources, no matter the context.

The numbers paint a dark picture. According to a 2014 report, "one in five refugees or displaced women in complex humanitarian settings experience sexual violence." In Rumbek, South Sudan, 73% of women have suffered violence from their partner, child marriage rates in Syria are four times higher than before the civil war began, and in Niger almost 76% of girls are married before the age of 18.

And yet the humanitarian systems fail to fund programs and services that protect women and girls in the face of these dangers. A new report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and VOICE -- a new global organization confronting violence against women and girls -- shows that just 0.12% of global humanitarian funding goes to gender-based violence programs -- that's less than $2 of help for each women or girl at risk.

Behind these numbers are individual stories of women and girls suffering a double disadvantage -- because of where they live and because of their gender. First, they live in communities where inequalities on the basis of sex marginalize them, limiting their day-to-day independence and freedoms. Second, civil wars, conflict and persecution in fragile states disproportionately affect women and girls by increasing their exposure to violence, both physical and psychological.

To reverse this double disadvantage, we must try to create a double dividend: tackle the symptoms of disadvantage but also address the power structures that cause them. That's why IRC is adopting a feminist approach to humanitarian aid, which requires us to engage more systematically with the questions of power that are raised by feminist thinking. It means a continued emphasis on preventing and responding to violence against women and girls -- ensuring it is neither invisible nor underfunded - and it calls for the humanitarian sector to institutionalize a proactive approach to tackling inequalities. At a minimum, this should include setting targets within the Sustainable Development Goals that serve women and girls in crisis, codifying a set of gender based violence safeguarding measures in emergencies, integrating women's voices and leadership in program design, and establishing gender equality scorecards to track progress.

The evidence before our eyes, from our staff and clients in the places where we work, underlines the importance of first eliminating gender-based power inequalities before we can provide the tools that girls and women need to thrive around the globe.

This effort is not just about a label. It's about acknowledging that danger and violence faced by women and girls in conflict settings are not just by-products of the crises themselves. Rather, they reflect deeper, entrenched inequalities between men and women in their families, their communities and their interactions with the humanitarian sector. The sexual exploitation and abuse scandals documented across the humanitarian sector speak to the challenge we are up against.

This lopsided power dynamic plays out in many harmful forms. When girls are sold off by their families into early marriage, that's the result of unequal power. When women in refugee camps are too scared to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night because the lack of lighting puts them at risk of rape, that's the result of unequal power. When 500 women and girls living in crisis settings die every day during pregnancy or childbirth, that's the result of unequal power. And when rapists aren't brought to justice for their crimes against women, that is the result of unequal power. This is what a feminist lens compels us to think about.

We must also look inward. IRC, along with other stakeholders working in war zones and fragile states, must address inequalities of power within our own organizations. I believe IRC cannot be a truly successful humanitarian organization until we are a feminist one -- with gender privilege absent from our programs, operations and staff experiences. This means identifying and dismantling existing gender inequalities and favoring changes that overcome them.

The new data released by UNHCR on Wednesday highlights what an incredibly challenging time this is for the people we serve around the world, from those at risk of Ebola in eastern Congo, to victims of airstrikes in Syria, to traumatized Rohingya in Bangladesh. But tackling the inequalities of power that women and girls face is not a diversion from our mission but is central to its achievement. It is precisely the scale of the humanitarian crisis that demands that we address it now.

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