On the Frontline

What life is like for a humanitarian worker, working to protect women in conflict zones all over the world.


Andrea Cullinan is a UNHCR Senior Protection Officer in Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. Andrea was recently back in Australia after a seven-month mission in Ethiopia, working at the forefront of the South Sudanese refugee influx. Before heading to the field again, she kindly took time to speak with Australia for UNHCR staff in Sydney. She shared photos and stories of her recent mission, providing a fascinating insight into her work and life in the field.


Daily activities in a refugee camp

“I’ve just come back from the Gambella region of Ethiopia which is at the heart of the South Sudan refugee influx. At the peak of the emergency last year, we were receiving between 1000 and 1500 refugees a day, a massive influx. In the whole area, we had five refugee camps with 256,000 refugees.

This bub’s family had just arrived at the entry point from Jonglei state in South Sudan. We found them while doing border monitoring — Mum, Grandma, three-year-old twins and this little baby girl. They’d walked for eight months across the warzones to finally reach the border. I took this photo of her as the newest refugee that day, wishing her a peaceful life.

This is a distribution day of women’s underwear and sanitary pads — ‘dignity kits’ we call them. Everyone’s very happy here, all sitting down waiting for the truck to come. When you get any group of women together like this in South Sudan, they break out in song. These things make your day ― it’s just beautiful.

“When you get any group of women together like this in South Sudan, they break out in song.”

Sanitary items are something we are trying to promote as a core emergency relief item. For the first four months we had none in these camps at all. This has an incredible knock-on effect. It keeps girls out of school; it keeps women confined at that time of the month, unable to leave their shelters. It has a big impact on their lives.

We were getting a lot of donor visits at this time, including VIPs like ‘our’ Princess Mary, HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. She’s Patron of UNFPA and visits a lot of refugee camps. Her particular interest is maternal and reproductive health. She was very personable and knowledgeable and the refugees loved her. She asked me where I was from. I said UNHCR and then realised she meant where in Australia.

This was a wonderful day. I stayed back at the end of Princess Mary’s visit for a women’s committee meeting. Everyone was happy and singing together. I thought to myself — this is where I want to be. I can think of nowhere better than being here right now with you women, singing this song under the African sky.

This image is opening day at one of the child-friendly spaces, this one in Tierkidi camp. These children wasted no time as you can see, they’ve broken out the toys. They couldn’t believe their eyes, and they were so orderly. They just came right in, sat down and got to it, and they were having a ball.

Outside at the same child friendly space there is a very dusty playground. It’s organised and it’s supervised by refugee social workers that we recruit and train.

This was International Women’s Day this year. In the camps we celebrate all the international days. We try to give women a big profile because they are so disempowered in these situations. These days give us the chance to redress that imbalance. SGBV prevention and response is a lifesaving activity as much as food and shelter. If you are not keeping people safe and protecting their rights, you are not saving their lives.

Sexual and gender based violence prevention and response is a lifesaving activity as much as food and shelter.

The camp has a women’s forum that comes up with ideas about how to combat sexual violence in the camp. Rape is very, very common, particularly among young girls, as well as other forms of abuse such as denying food. So we have to deal with these things — it’s a constant struggle.

These refugee outreach workers are doing a community awareness skit on domestic violence. The root cause of SGBV is gender inequality. If women don’t have a voice, if they are not equally represented on committees and men dominate, it perpetuates all these issues.

Life for humanitarian workers in a refugee camp

Here’s our team on an assessment mission. These are very challenging. At the sharp end of emergencies, where I work, you nearly always finish late at night. You’re in the camps all day or travelling long distances between them, then you’re working in the office at night, having meetings and planning. We have generators for power but they often break down. The lights go out and nobody bats an eyelid — everyone just keeps talking.

This is a moment of down time inside our quarters in the UNHCR compound. Last year we were working seven days a week but this year, we started having Sundays off. This is a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Grass is strewn on the ground for ceremonial purposes and popcorn is served.

This was one of my last days in Ethiopia. The children were always wanting to touch my skin, my hair — they’ve never felt hair like this. So on this day I said — okay kids, go for it! I was laughing so hard. I had a moment of pure happiness and joy to be there.


Originally from Toowoomba QLD, Andrea Cullinan’s role as a humanitarian worker takes her to conflict zones all over the world. A UNHCR Senior Protection Officer in Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), she implements Safe from the Start, a new global initiative to protect women and girls in conflict situations.


UNHCR is the UN Refugee Agency, dedicated to protecting and supporting refugees and those forcibly displaced from their homes.

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