Jocelyn Kelly, PhD, is a research scientist in the Brigham’s Department of Emergency Medicine and director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Gender, Rights and Resilience program, where she conducts qualitative and quantitative research to understand and prevent gender-based violence, especially in the context of complex crises.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Brigham Bulletin spoke with Kelly about her research and how she and her colleagues are working to improve the lives of women in vulnerable communities worldwide.

Why is it so important to address gender, peace and security in fragile states, especially for women?

JK: The pressing issues of our time — addressing climate change, ensuring effective pandemic control measures, creating just and equitable societies — all of these goals are intrinsically linked to women’s rights. Advancing women’s rights helps us understand, anticipate, de-escalate and recover from conflict. Research has shown that the security of women and the security of nations are closely linked. For instance, women’s security is a better indicator of state stability than the level of democracy or per capita GDP. Conversely, violence and inequality undermine the very sources of resilience we need to effectively respond to the threat of conflict, climate change and pandemics.

International Women’s Day marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. How does the work you do help in reaching this goal?

JK: My research spans three areas: understanding the links between gender, climate change and conservation; improving equity in the humanitarian system; and addressing root causes of violence. More and more, we are understanding that global issues are deeply interconnected. In my work, I use evidence to reveal previously hidden dynamics and surface these interlinkages. For instance, I authored a paper on the links between fragile states, gender-based violence and the COVID pandemic for the United States Institute of Peace. Another part of my work explores how conflict casts a long “shadow” on societies, creating hidden dynamics that disadvantage women. Years after formal peace is declared, women continue to experience extremely high levels of violence after conflict, both in their homes and communities. Research can help us reveal both barriers and opportunities. It is important to highlight the dynamics — positive and negative — between these large global questions so we can more effectively address them.

What led you to work in humanitarian response? 

JK: One of my first jobs in disaster response was working in Hurricane Katrina. I was in New Orleans while search and rescue efforts were still underway. During that time, I was struck by the fact that the same disaster, illness or threat can affect people in totally different ways, depending on their vulnerabilities and opportunities. As disaster responders, we didn’t always understand those nuances at the time and didn’t consult with people in the community to help us do better.

I wanted to contribute to evidence-based practice in humanitarian response. Currently, my work uses both qualitative and quantitative research to ensure that the experiences, expertise and needs of people affected by disaster inform our responses. They are the experts in their own experiences, and the more we listen and learn, the better we will be at disaster response and prevention.

Is there a woman who inspired you to join this field or mentored you along the way?

JK: This is a tough question because I have so many amazing colleagues! I do want to give special thanks to my colleague, Annie Mwange. She is a women’s rights activist in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Annie created a grassroots organization in her community for women and children affected by the decades-long conflict in the region. Using her own money, courage and perseverance, she built a non-governmental organization with other women to fight for access lifesaving services for the most vulnerable. Since then, her organization has grown leaps and bounds, and Annie is the head of a national women’s association in DRC. We were just launching a project together when the COVID pandemic hit. Our project used teaching images created by a Congolese artist (a woman!) to conduct evidence-based training on human rights law, occupational safety and climate change. Instead of giving up on this effort during the pandemic, we pivoted to also include information about the pandemic and public health measures to control its spread. We just finished the project and saw remarkable impact in the participating communities — everything from improving pay for women to more women taking leadership roles in their communities.

When efforts to advance women’s rights seem stalled, or seem to be moving too slowly, it’s important to remember that there are millions of women like Annie fighting every day for gender equality and human rights.