Partner, family, disaster, deployment — can women have it all?

Female aid workers deploying to disaster zones often face barriers that men don’t. Aid organizations are changing their policies– but is that enough to add more female colleagues to their surge teams?

A seasoned female aid worker expecting her second child once asked me whether I think she can ever deploy to a disaster zone again and if she should better change jobs. “How can I organize day care if I have to travel within 24 hours? What will family members and friends think of me when I ‘abandon’ my daughters at such short notice? And do I really have to travel for six weeks all the time?”, she said.

Some years ago, after typhoon Haiyan devastated several islands in the Philippines, another female colleague returned from her deployment and mentioned that her main personal challenge was caring for her own hygiene.

“Getting my period in the middle of a disaster zone with no functioning toilets, no running water or private space was a nightmare”, she recalled.

I hear such anecdotes regularly as I coordinate the deployments of CARE’s humanitarian aid workers. Many aid organizations rely on a standing capacity cadre of highly-skilled aid workers who can deploy to any disaster zone within days or even hours to support our local staff deliver crucial emergency assistance. In our own NGO lingo we call that ‘surge capacity’. It is defined as the ability to scale-up resources smoothly and quickly, including getting the right people at the right time to the right places.

CARE aid worker in Iraq. Photo: Emily Kinskey/CARE

For a newly released report by ActionAid, CARE and other organisations we interviewed female aid workers to find out what are the main barriers they face and why women may hesitate to apply for the organisations’ roster of emergency staff. How can we assist our female surge staff to better combine family life with deploying to disaster zones? How can we ensure they are safe and can attend to their personal needs while delivering crucial emergency assistance?

Even though some organisations like CARE are able to maintain a good gender balance in their teams, we know that female humanitarians face different challenges than their male counterparts and we aim to address these to get -and keep — more women as part of our teams.

This is not only important to advance CARE’s gender equality in the workforce. We are an organisation that aims to empower women and we know that during humanitarian crises and emergencies, the needs of women, men, boys and girls differ. Women are often particularly affected by disasters. Violence against women increases in humanitarian crises. About 60 percent of maternal deaths occur in countries affected by conflict or disaster. Women often can’t swim in poor countries affected by floods and cyclones and they are responsible for taking care of their families — even when they have lost everything.

Is it still all white males parachuting into a disaster zone?

Women’s needs in disasters are often overlooked when mainly male-dominated emergency response teams talk to male village chiefs in affected communities. All male local field teams will often reinforce conservative local attitudes on the role and needs of women, rather than question these. For us to better hear the voices of women and girls, we need to deploy more women to get a balanced analysis and to plan our emergency assistance accordingly.

Slowly, the image of white male humanitarians parachuting into a disaster zone is changing with more women but also colleagues from developing countries joining our CARE surge team, or Rapid Response Team as we officially call it.

However, as I have experienced many times, masculine characteristics continue to exist in disaster relief settings. Many interviewees noted that they don’t feel perceived as experts by their male team mates and have to endure condescending comments. For others, personal safety and security is a main challenge as they do feel at greater risk of sexual violence, especially when sleeping conditions are tough and not lockable, for example tents in a spontaneous settlement for displaced people or after earthquakes when hotels and offices are destroyed. Beside the aforementioned example of personal hygiene, well-being and support before and after the deployment is crucial for many women, including self-defence training.

Slowly, the image of white male humanitarians parachuting into a disaster zone is changing with more women but also colleagues from developing countries joining our CARE surge team. Photo: CARE/Josh Estey
The unmarried female humanitarian– a stereotype?

It’s no secret: Family, childcare and personal relationships can have a great impact on a woman’s decision to join a deployable team. Rapid Response Team members are on the road most of their time, sometimes they spend up to three months in a disaster zone. Travel often comes on short notice as many natural disasters such as earthquakes or cyclones happen, well, rather rapidly.

Oftentimes women feel judged by family members for their surge lifestyle — whereas for men this rarely raises eyebrows. Many female colleagues often have to defend themselves when being asked who will take care of the children when they are away, as if a mother would leave them to fend for themselves. Other female interviewees noted the high costs of childcare on very short notice and over long periods of time. One colleague coming from a polygamous culture mentioned the societal and community pressure on her husband to take a second wife to assert himself as the head of the household while she was building her career.

As one male CARE humanitarian sums it up: “ I can think of no less than five senior female humanitarian leaders who I’ve personally worked with and who are in the 40’s and 50’s that remain unmarried or ‘unpartnered’ without children– and no single men, including myself. It could be personal choice, but at least one of them confided in me that it was career or relationship.”
So if we as aid organisations are pushing women to decide between humanitarian work and family, what can we do to alleviate this?

There are solutions and ideas we need to adapt: We need to become better at investing in policies that allow our staff — women and men — enjoy a healthy work/life balance, especially those deploying at very short notice to rapid onset emergencies, such as earthquakes, floods or cyclones. This should also include allowances for childcare costs and family requirements. We need to empty our organisational ‘pockets’ of humanitarian boys clubs. It is crucial that we discuss and challenge the hidden power structures that still affect leadership. And it’s more than that: Organisations need to embed a culture and leadership that allows and encourages staff to talk about issues such as personal hygiene requirements and safety concerns openly.

CARE currently has about 21 staff in our Rapid Response Team. Over the past years, we have worked hard to ensure women constitute at least 50 percent of them, and we’ve enjoyed significant success in recent years.

However, Rapid Response Team members fluctuate. Being a deployable aid worker is often not a job for the long-term. So we as CARE need to retain that balance and constantly be on our toes to improve our policies and to change organisational culture that humanitarian relief is a men’s domain.

So can women working in the humanitarian sector have it all? In the end, it’s about women’s personal choices — but we as CARE are working constantly towards improving our policies and approaches for female humanitarians to combine family, personal well-being, safety and security. In the end, female aid workers are indispensable in our emergency responses to ensure women and girls don’t get left behind.

You can download the full report by ActionAid International and CARE here:

Kathleen O’Brien is Surge Capacity Coordinator for CARE International.