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  • Writer's pictureJL Nash

Counting Down to World Humanitarian Day

As I write this, I’m watching a countdown on the website ready to reveal 24 stories of extraordinary women on Monday, 19th August.

World Humanitarian Day 2019 is set to celebrate Women Humanitarians and their undying contribution in making the world a better place. Women Humanitarians hold a sense of unparalleled uniqueness, one that adds to the global momentum of female strength, power and perseverance. It is time to honor the women who have acted as first responders to the darkest hours of crisis.*

The first thing I ask myself about this planned day is why are we honouring women specifically?  Surely there are men who need as much accolade? Of course there are. However, women face different challenges in life, especially when it comes to disaster and conflict. It is in the face of these obstacles and experiences that women humanitarians need to be recognised.  According to the U.N., violence against women and girls increases during disasters and conflict and 1 in 5 displaced women are the victims of sexual violence. These statistics could leave one viewing that sector of society as victims, cast aside with no resources for survival. What marks World Humanitarian Day 2019 is that women, globally, are not choosing to accept the title of victim and in spite of abhorrent circumstances, often emerge displaying leadership skills proving essential to the rehabilitation and resilience of their families, friends and communities.

Famous female humanitarians we know of, such as Angelina Jolie and Graca Machel need no additional praise. Even though I will continue to celebrate how they have used their public influence to bring about awareness and change to different lives, we all need to recognise those women who continue to live and support others in dire times, often risking their own physical and mental health and wellbeing in the process.  The women who don’t have money, fame, resources and who are still first on the scene to help and alleviate the results of war and disasters need your time to honour and recognise them and their efforts. These role models display strength and determination to build better communities and ultimately, society.

I live with the privilege of a safe country which is working towards gender equality. Whilst we agree gender equality is essential, there are many countries where women humanitarians are working hard for women and girls to be valued and viewed as equals to men and boys respectively. I complain when I see inequitable pay scales in employment. I have no idea what it means to be cast aside and seen as being of less worth than my brother or my husband. It takes fearless valour to put oneself forward in situations where one is dismissed and often violently targeted, to help others.

As long as women are affected by crisis and disaster, women need to be among the first responders to heal and change and on 19th August, 24 stories will afford a tiny glimpse of courage and resilience of 24 women humanitarians. I hope you will take the time to engage and, over 24 hours, honour leadership that has thrown away the shackles of conflict and disaster and continues to forge the emotional steel for rescue, survival and progress.

Humanitarians are not only first responders. They can be organisers and decision makers for community projects funded, very often, through foreign aid.  Areas concerning “human development for a productive and healthy society”** include efforts to address problems such as maternal mortality, child stunting, poor literacy and numeracy, combatting diseases, all of which drastically affect and limit the opportunities within the workforce and ultimately the productivity of the society.  Women are finally taking their place and very often leading these areas of improvement.

Humanitarians are also involved with policy influencing in countries.  For example, in Indonesia there is a Australian foreign aid budgeted for specific woman’s program which are supporting the development of 950 women’s groups. These help 17,409 female members to participate in policy-influencing activities with regard to issues like women’s access to employment and encourage women’s leadership to reduce violence against women and girls.

I grew up in Africa. Part of the time was spent in South Africa during apartheid. My mother was sacked from being the Principal of Drake Secretarial College, when during a buyout bid, the owners discovered she wanted to make it multiracial. Undeterred, she set up her own Secretarial College and in the face of student harassment and 90 day detentions of students simply for enrolling, she continued to offer international qualifications to those women (and some men)  who wanted and needed a chance for education and employment. She is my hero and first taught me about humanitarian ideals.  In her retirement, she supported herself, and taught Karen and Hmong children English for free, to help them secure a better future for themselves, their families and communities.  While we can’t all do this kind of work, we can have the attitude for aid.

My challenge to you, whatever your gender, is to consider being a force for change which directly influences the wellbeing of your fellow humans.  I am assuming the majority of readers are from countries where these types of projects already exist. What are you doing to support them? If you cannot support them physically, are you supporting them financially through donation?  Finally, if you are able, how about sponsoring a foreign group in order to support the aid of another society in their progress, development and safety? Should our own societies, one day, be torn in war or disaster, are you the kind of person who can demonstrate leadership in response? We don’t have to wait for war or conflict. Natural disasters happen in many countries. What do you do to support aid and relief? Be the change you want to see. Be the leader within your own friendship groups and family and offer a foot-rock of stability, progress, safety and equality for all.

*from OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.) **from Australia Embassy Indonesia

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