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The Quiet Unseen Struggles of Women Humanitarians

This year, the annual World Humanitarian Day is honouring the efforts of women humanitarians, particularly the unsung heroes who often receive little recognition for their commitment and hard work. This blog piece contributes to this celebration of women in our sector, by drawing on the stories of some of my African research participants in Kenya. They all believe passionately in what they do. Yet they also face challenges that are quite unique to them, as women; challenges that are often unseen and unappreciated in a sector that can feel very macho and, ironically given its purpose, lacking in emotional openness. All names have been changed.

‘You are a woman’ – this attitude is always in your face.

Clare is a Ugandan woman who was managing her organisation’s regional programme in northern Kenya when I met her in 2016. Her position as a manager, and as a woman, was difficult in a remote and impoverished environment where women were often given less respect than men. Clare struggled to access county government officials to discuss her NGO’s interventions in the area, and at times received inappropriate and flirtatious phone-calls and text messages following meetings with them. She also told me that the hot climate and basic living conditions made it particularly difficult for menstruating women travelling to the field, where toilet facilities often lack privacy and are unhygienic – in turn increasing the risk of urinary infections. Yet these sorts of problems could not be easily discussed in an office that was comprised largely of men. 

Not many men in Turkana would move with you, as you move as a lady looking in search of employment.

Jane is a Kenyan woman from Turkana county who used to work in Kakuma refugee camp. Jane worked long hours, often delivering several babies, sometimes simultaneously, in the course of a day. At the same time, her two young children were living with her in Kakuma town, whilst her husband remained in the family home a five hour road trip away. This situation was a big challenge for Jane; her youngest child cried a lot in her absence, when she was at work and the children were looked after by a locally hired nanny. But it was difficult for Jane to give up her job because she was supporting not only her children, but also some of her 8 siblings, as she was the only person in her family to acquire a proper education and employment.  Jane felt there was little sympathy by her employers towards her situation, and that it was far easier for men, or single women without families, to work in a refugee camp environment. She left Kakuma after one year and managed to find another job closer to home.

Being a mother has given me a reason to build a better world…it’s no longer just another job…there’s more value to it.

Janet is a Kenyan woman who has worked on humanitarian programmes in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan. Janet felt there was a lack of sympathy and understanding towards women like her who were young mothers. On one occasion she was pressured by her manager to travel to Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya when she was heavily pregnant, and had to get there by road rather than air as she was in her final trimester and couldn’t fly. The route was long and bumpy and very uncomfortable for her. Janet gave birth prematurely, a day after she returned from the two-day trip to Dadaab. On another occasion, her (male) manager accused her of poor performance after she insisted she must leave the office early and not attend a meeting because her baby was very sick and needed to go to hospital.   

I keep going because giving up the job won’t stop the bombings

I talked to Yasmin over lunch when I ran a stress management workshop for Kenyan, Somali and European staff at an international NGO in Nairobi. At the workshop, the Somali staff discussed how being emotional was not seen as acceptable in their culture, partly because danger and hardship were part of everyday life and couldn’t be avoided. Yasmin, who lived and worked in Mogadishu, told me how she was struck by the fact that whenever a bombing occurred in the city, her international colleagues were on the first flight home. Yet she was risking her life each day on the road to her office, where armed attacks frequently took place. Some of her family members had lost limbs as a result of such attacks. Yasmin remained committed to her job, as a health worker for mothers and children, telling me that giving it up would not stop the dangers and risks of living there.

These are just a selection of stories from strong, determined women in the sector who are deeply committed to helping others and, in some cases, saving lives. As women from the global south, they do not always share the same limelight as their white expatriate colleagues from the global north; yet they continue to work in difficult conditions over long periods of time, struggling the most to prove themselves and be sufficiently recognised, supported and compensated in a sector whose working practices and environments often favour men. Many gender-related problems being addressed in humanitarian programmes are equally relevant to the staff working on those programmes.  Women often face less opportunities for career progression due to traditional gender norms concerning their family duties. Their childcare responsibilities are not seen as important – even though these surely should contribute to their humanitarian credentials – and are often viewed as a hindrance to the ‘real work’.  Women aid workers’ healthcare needs are often ignored, and there is little space to discuss them – particularly when working in male-dominated environments. And in war zones, it is largely women (and children) who are most at risk – including women aid workers.

It is time for humanitarian organisations to truly embody their values on gender equality, and recognise – and reward – the commitment of these unsung heroes, and provide better support and protection that enables them to continue with their work.

On Ending Chapters and Starting New Ones

Wait, what just happened? Aid workers who are reading this, how often have you had this feeling after returning from field work, or completing an intense and all-consuming job? That feeling that something that gave you purpose, that helped to define your life for much of the time, has come to an end…..and now you have entered the void, the unknown. Not entirely sure what comes next, and too tired and discombobulated to move in any meaningful direction.

I’ve been there before. And to some extent I am there now, although not because of any humanitarian activity. Just a few weeks ago I submitted the final final, this-is-truly-it (I think) version of my Phd thesis, entitled The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Discourses of Stress and Meaning-Making Among Aid Workers in Kenya. I say ‘final-final’ because what no one tells you when embarking on a Phd is that a good few months are spent producing what you assume to be the final draft of your thesis, only to go through a prolonged process of revisions following what is supposedly the pinnacle of your efforts: the viva, or oral examination where you defend what you have written. This means that ending the Phd often lacks finality, or closure. It is hard to be sure where the end-point actually lies: when you submit your thesis for review by your examiners, when you have the viva, when you submit the corrections suggested by your examiners, or when they approve your corrections (I’m still waiting for this last part). And during this time we are left in limbo, wondering what has just happened and what is ahead of us.

Back to the parallels with aid workers, and the re-entry into ‘normal life’.  Particularly when you are not sure of what you want to do next, or you are hoping for an adjustment in career aspirations or work-life balance but are not quite sure yet what that means – and I know there are many aid workers out there having this experience – there follows a period of uncertainty, and possibly panic. And the human instinct often appears to be one of FOMO, the fear of missing out, or of failure, if we allow ourselves to stop for just one minute and take a breath from our life aspirations.

The problem also for those of us who are taking the route of addressing wellbeing in the aid sector, the success of such initiatives largely depends on us being able to commodify what we believe is vital to this industry; to prove to aid organisations that it makes financial sense to look after staff. Many of us need to be self-starters, good at networking and with the right jargon and tactics to access, and persuade, the sector’s managers and gatekeepers. Although recent events, including the suicides of two members of staff at Amnesty International and the allegations of sexual harassment in various organisations has shone a light on wellbeing in the sector, these issues are largely still not a priority when resources are scarce and the needs of populations in war zones and disaster areas ever-greater. It thus remains a huge effort to make ourselves heard in a sector that largely wants to maintain the status quo of pushing staff beyond their capacities until they can no longer function, and who are easily dispensed of because some other idealist can easily take their place.

Individual and collective wellbeing in the aid sector nevertheless remains my passion, after having spent over four years studying stress among aid workers in Kenya, and having worked in many organisations where lack of attention to staff care has had negative implications for my health and the health of my colleagues. So although I’m in the transition phase of finishing my Phd, waking each day with some inertia and indeed some emotion as I let go of this last chapter of my life, I also know there is much work to be done in challenging organisational cultures and practices that not only damage staff but the very humanitarian ethos and caring aspirations of the aid sector. I am thus striking a delicate balance between resting, enjoying a life that goes beyond the mental angst and solitude of academia, and of connecting my ideas and values with meaningful action.

In the next few weeks, as I gather my own inner resources for the struggles ahead (because challenging the injustices and mental and emotional health implications of the aid system’s patriarchal and colonial structure is a struggle) I will also be sharing some of what I have learned in the last few years. At my university, Sussex, with support from Project U-DOC I am facilitating a series of workshops on the mental health and wellbeing of doctoral researchers in June and July. These will take an intersectional approach that recognises that wellbeing is a collective, not just an individual, endeavour that cannot be seen in isolation from, or merely as an add-on to, problematic systems of power and hierarchy.  

In the aid sector, I will be writing regular updates on humanitarian health and wellbeing for the Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection network (PHAP); with the first one likely to address the findings of Amnesty International’s Wellbeing Review and upcoming initiatives arising out of the Healing Solidarity conference in September last year, including a new online platform you can join.

And, finally, at long last – I will get to work on sharing my research findings more widely, via this blog site and other channels. This includes the publication of an article for Gender and Development in June/July, which addresses power and privilege in the aid sector and the gendered and racialised problems of stress among my research participants in Kenya.

So please do watch this space and I look forward to sharing ideas and getting your feedback in the months ahead!

Understanding the Spiritual Lives of Aid Workers

Isn’t it about time aid organisations paid more attention to the spiritual lives of their staff? After all, it is often faith of one sort or another that is guiding the work of aid professionals. With approximately 90% of the aid sector being made up of people from non-western countries, I think it is safe to say that the majority of that 90% would identify themselves with a particular faith. This is in contrast to western aid workers, where I would guess that the percentage who identify with and actively practise a particular religion is much lower. This is a fairly informed guess, given that I used to work for a large Christian charity where about half the number of its UK staff (including myself) did not identify with the Christian faith, nor any other religion.

Religion, and more broadly spirituality, has a bad press in the UK and many other western countries. We often tend to associate Christianity, for instance, with negative tropes such as power, domination (including the colonisation of countries in the global south), conflict and abuse. In the aid sector, we may work with and support faith-based organisations in our development programmes but in the workplace we shy away from discussions around faith and spirituality. The assumption seems to be that those are things for poor people in need, not for us. Development and aid programming is after all built upon rigid, rational formulas and frameworks that do not allow space for the subjective, fluid and hard-to-measure experience of what may be labelled ‘the supernatural’ or ‘occult’.

Yet by dismissing faith-based practice as something irrelevant to aid work we are overlooking the importance of these practices in guiding and supporting aid professionals in the most challenging of circumstances. From my own research in Kenya I have seen that spiritual growth and development has a major role to play in understanding why some people – European and African – overcome, or completely transcend, the challenges of their work in the aid sector.

Being religious or spiritual means many different things, and I am not simply suggesting that going to church can be a panacea for all ills, or a route out of personal suffering. What I believe is that spiritual practice, and faith, is a way in which to make sense of suffering in order to support one’s way of being in the world.

I found the way some of my Kenyan and Somali research participants talked about their faith and their work particularly informative. The Somali aid workers I met were often working in situations of heightened insecurity, where the threat of bombings or gunfire was always nearby. They believed that these were circumstances that had to be accepted as ‘God’s will’, and that rather than dwelling on the challenges it was better to appreciate the life that God had given them. It was this form of faith that enabled the Somali aid workers to laugh and joke about situations that their western counterparts balked at, such as the bombs they could hear outside their offices which the Somalis would say was the ‘popcorn’ starting again.

In a very different context, I remember the calmness and sense of acceptance that emanated from a Kenyan aid worker I spoke to in Nairobi, when she told me about her organisation’s restructuring and the likelihood that she would lose the job she’d been in for over 10 years. She felt strongly that her Christian faith would help her remain self-assured and confident of her abilities despite these circumstances.

‘My faith is more important now than anything else. Mostly because my faith helps me affirm my beliefs of who I am and what I’m capable of doing. Such that, as I step out, whether I’m stepping out or not, or as I face this matter, I face it with confidence. We always say, when one door closes another door opens. So I encourage myself with the word of God!’

Furthermore, aid work enabled some of my research participants to engage in a meaningful occupation that could give them spiritual growth. A number of Kenyan aid professionals I spoke to referred to how their work had given them a sense of purpose by making a difference to the lives of others. Working to assist victims of war, or poor communities, had also helped them to appreciate their own good fortune, in spite of the hardships they too may have experienced when growing up.

Having a sense of purpose is clearly very important for aid work. Loss of purpose, or meaning, is often what leads to disillusionment and burnout in the aid sector. And when faced with immense human suffering, along with the high expectations of aid beneficiaries, employers and donors, it isn’t hard to lose that sense of purpose, if the aid worker feels that their actions can never fully meet the needs of others. Yet faith and spiritual awareness are clearly vital elements in addressing these challenges. Reflecting on my own experience, and on the stories of some of my research participants, I can see that engaging in spiritual practice helps to build an awareness and knowledge of oneself. This may ultimately mean recognising one’s limitations as much as one’s capabilities; seeing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we too are humans who are vulnerable and imperfect (perfectly imperfect as some spiritualists like to say). But by understanding ourselves better, we can also instil more trust in our abilities to overcome difficult situations – to respond to these situations in a way that helps us grow and learn.

Spiritual and religious practices are also a way of fostering greater connection with others. Prayer and meditation often takes place in a collective space, where people feel sufficiently safe to share their innermost feelings and vulnerabilities. These spaces are vital in the aid sector as its organisational culture so often stigmatises mental health and shuts out emotional expression. Whilst many western cultures may consider counselling and talking therapies to be the solution for mental health problems, we forget that there are other important spaces that exist in cultures different from our own. African aid workers, for instance, may feel more comfortable opening up to known and trusted faith-based or traditional healers than to a professional psychotherapist coming from a European country.

As I have said before, there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff care. But at least acknowledging and working with these alternative forms of healing and self-care could serve two related purposes: of understanding better the spiritual lives of aid workers – as multi-faceted human beings rather than mere aid delivery robots – and of providing them with support that is grounded in their own cultures and belief systems.