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.

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