When I am the only woman in sight: What I have learned from ten years as a humanitarian aid worker

IPPF Global
Aug 18 · 5 min read
Nerida, a humanitarian comms worker with IPPF based in Bangkok sits with local team members.
Nerida, a humanitarian comms worker with IPPF based in Bangkok sits with local team members.

There’s a point in time on most emergency deployments I go on, where I suddenly become the only woman in sight. Normally this happens when I am getting closer to the site of the emergency, such as in a small domestic airport. It can be unnerving (to say the least) to be the only woman on a flight, or arriving into a small unfamiliar airport alone, especially in the middle of the night.

Though I have worked in the humanitarian sector for over ten years now, this fact only struck me last year when I was travelling to a remote part of Indonesia after a massive earthquake. It got me thinking about the humanitarian sector and why there are still relatively few women working at the field level or being deployed to emergencies. This prompted me to compile a list of five things I have learned during my time as a humanitarian worker:

1. The personal safety and security of lone female humanitarian travellers is not taken seriously enough

The humanitarian sector, at least at the field level, is still very much dominated by men. Women are less likely to put their hand up to be deployed to an emergency for several reasons, not least of all family commitments at home, or needing to be more risk-averse for their own personal safety. We need to encourage more women to be deployed to increase representation at the field level. For example, my current organization, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, will cover the cost of care for children if a woman has to leave her home to travel for work. Small steps like this make women feel much more supported.

Vanuatu: Volcano 2018 - Volcanic activity on the Ambae Island in Vanuatu forced the inhabitants to seek refuge on neighboring islands. This was the second emergency declared in Vanuatu within a year — over 2,000 people were relocated. IPPF Member Association, the Vanuatu Family Health Association, was on Ambae delivering emergency sexual and reproductive healthcare to evacuees during this time and followed the evacuees to Maewo Island to continue emergency outreach services there.

2. Local humanitarian responders are the real heroes

In so many instances, the work of international aid agencies is portrayed through documenting the work of the international aid worker who flies in as part of surge support. Yet in reality, without the groundwork of local aid workers during the first few hours on an emergency — a meaningful response by the international community would not be possible. They are there before, during and after the disaster. They are the ones who are personally impacted by the disaster — some lose their homes, others a family member. But despite their personal loss, I’ve seen local staff members go back to work mere days after a disaster because they are committed to the continuation of care for their clients. I’ve heard of some of our nurses recommencing medical care from the back office of a clinic — the only part left undamaged after a cyclone — so their clients didn’t have to miss their sexual and reproductive health appointments. They are really amazing but are often underrepresented by the international community

3. There is still too much emphasis on international branding, rather than the beneficiaries’ story

Since the start of my career working in communications and media in the aid sector, I’ve been hoping for a shift from the emphasis of branding to the message just being about the person affected. The person who lost their home. The local staff member that supported them back onto their feet. Audiences are evolving and becoming a lot savvier. Blatant logo plastering and soapboxing by INGOs is passé. For our sector to remain relevant we must evolve with the times — both with our programming and our communication style. There’s a global commitment called the Charter4Change, which IPPF has endorsed. It calls for INGOs to purposefully message their visual and written communications to promote the role of local actors to the media and public. This is a fantastic step. After all, it’s our local staff members who do the work, and this should be reflected in our communications.

India — newlywed attend a clinic for advise on contraception after Cyclone Fani.
India — newlywed attend a clinic for advise on contraception after Cyclone Fani.
India: Cyclone Fani 2019 — Pradipta Kumar, a 22-year-old security guard and his new wife, Pankanjini Behera, 21-years-old, attend a consultation with Trupti Rani Manapatra, Programmer Officer at the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI). The newlyweds attended a clinic set up by the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) to help those affected by Cyclone Fani. They wanted to get family planning advice as they do not want to have children for a few years and were given condoms and advice on how to use them.

4. Emergencies can create opportunities otherwise not there

In my current role as Humanitarian Communications Advisor for IPPF, I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many women who have been able to access long term contraceptives due to our intervention after a disaster. It’s obvious they’ve been keen to access contraception for a long time. I’ve had several women say to me they’ve heard about a ‘five-year stick’ (the long-acting contraceptive called Jadelle) but didn’t know how or where to get it. Once our teams get to a disaster site, we set up mobile health clinics. These can be so remotely located they are set up under a mango tree, inside a disused classroom, or inside a cyclone center. We’ve given thousands of women the chance to access contraception they wouldn’t have been to otherwise and therefore take control of their family planning. And we always leave a site with an exit plan, so the services can be continued.

5. Advocating for sexual and reproductive healthcare in emergencies should be a lot easier

In previous roles in this sector, I’ve advocated for, amongst other things, children’s protection, nutrition programmes, shelter rebuilding, and educational programmes. The biggest challenge so far has come with this role — advocating for sexual and reproductive healthcare in emergencies — an often misunderstood and severely under-resourced critical component of care during a crisis. During a humanitarian crisis, sexual violence and exploitation of women and girls increase, women and girls become more vulnerable to human trafficking and pregnant women become displaced (often with children in tow) that require maternal healthcare. So why is it that sexual and reproductive healthcare is seemingly not a priority during a crisis response? Is it because it disproportionately affects women and girls or is sexual and reproductive healthcare not considered as a critical element of health? Too few aid agencies in emergency setting focus on sexual and reproductive healthcare, from contraception, HIV testing, to maternal health and in some cases safe abortion care. I am proud that IPPF and its Member Associations on the ground provide such care in emergencies, knowing it is providing respect and dignity in difficult circumstances.

I believe the international community needs to do more to ensure women and girls have access to life-saving healthcare specific to their sexual and reproductive needs in humanitarian responses. If they do not, women and girls will continue to be left behind.

Learn more about IPPF’s Humanitarian work

Why not follow us on Twitter at @ippf the author of this article Nerida Williams @NeridaJocelyn

IPPF Global

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Around the world, International Planned Parenthood Federation provides care, protecting people's health and lives from sexual and reproductive coercion.

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