International Humanitarian Day 2019: celebrating women humanitarians

Cox’s Bazar, 19 August 2019 - Humanitarian crisis poses an unparalleled challenge to local and national health systems that are overwhelmed, and at times too weak, to withstand crisis and extreme events, leaving hundreds of millions vulnerable. On International Humanitarian Day, WHO pays tribute to those who dedicate their lives to alleviating human suffering, by contributing to reduce the effects of disasters, quickly responding to health priorities and helping countries recovering from crisis.

Among Humanitarians, women encounter the greatest difficulties and yet they stand strong together to help people affected by crisis to recover and thrive. On this year’s International Humanitarian Day, we celebrate the many women humanitarians just like Jennie, Anne and Asma, amongst others, who currently serve in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to uplift the dignity and health of Rohingya refugees.

WHO Bangladesh/Tatiana Almeida

Jennie Musto, Epidemiology Team Lead

I think there is a moment in a person's life when humanitarians are called to this work. I thought about this for years when I was an emergency nurse before I became an epidemiologist but nothing eventuated until I was working for WHO in the Pacific. At that point in time, I knew that this is what I wanted and was meant to do - I have since been away from my home in Australia for 7 years and have had the privilege of responding to more than 50 emergencies in more than 10 countries for outbreaks and events ranging from cholera to natural and humanitarian disasters.

Perhaps my experience in Yemen was one of my darkest moments as a humanitarian, supporting starving children at the therapeutic feeding center. But there were many more of hope and sense of purpose - delivering measles vaccination and food and water by helicopter after the cyclone in Vanuatu, was one of those.

I first arrived in Cox’s Bazar on April 2019. My daily routine consists of leading a team who are responsible for surveillance and response to outbreak prone diseases in the Rohingya camps and the host community. What is most rewarding for me was the opportunity to engage with the Rohingya refugees. These are people who have really shown me the true meaning of strength in adversity. Apart from being able to practice my work as an epidemiologist, I am humbled by the immediate impact of my work in affected communities. In this area of work is where you see the immediate effect of WHO activities and it is extremely rewarding.

Communicating with the Rohingya refugees is essential in my job, at WHO we need to ensure they understand and are empowered in their health decisions. To this end, our colleagues from Chittagong, who also speak Rohingya language, are of great support.

More and more I see women humanitarian aid workers in the field. That said, I find strength in the courageousness of my fellow female colleagues. And I continue to be inspired here in Cox’s Bazar as well.

Our voices as women are heard now more than ever and its encouraging because we have so much to say.

WHO Bangladesh/Tatiana Almeida

Dr Umme Asma Absari, Technical Support Officer

For many years, I lived the dream of working as a doctor, proudly serving my people. In Bangladesh that is especially important because women aren’t always given the great opportunity to seek higher education. But one day I felt that I wanted to do more, to be closer to people in need, perhaps to help those affected by crisis if I would have the chance.

The moment I decided to work for WHO was the turning point in my life because soon after I was supporting urgent health needs among Rohingya refugees, in Cox’s Bazar.

I was among the first responders. In the beginning, in my capacity as a surveillance and immunization medical officer I had to assess the risk factors for communicable diseases.

The assessment demonstrated that mass population movement and resettlement in temporary locations, overcrowding, scarcity of safe water, poor sanitation and waste management, absence of shelter, poor nutritional status, and limited access to health care increased the risk to communicable and vaccine preventable diseases to this population.

To mitigate against the outbreak of cholera, we initiated a massive immunization campaign against cholera. In the midst of the emergency context, as a doctor and technical officer I also had to administrate vaccines. Sometimes it would start pouring heavily but that has never stopped us.

During the first two months, I had to be at the refugee camps from 6am to 11pm, every day. Although it meant that I had to be away from my son who was 1 year old at the time, I experienced a great sense of purpose, commitment and fulfillment. However, I must say that I wouldn’t have been able to do this job without the full support of my parents.

Serving as a humanitarian in my own country, I have a great cultural understanding and the possibility of communicating with the refugees. I can understand 80% of the Rohingya language and this represents a great advantage in everyday life and work and I feel even more honored to be serving both my people in Cox’s Bazar, where I was born and raised, and the Rohingya refugees.

WHO Bangladesh/ Catalin Bercaru

Anne Oketch, Gender-based Violence Technical officer for the health sector

Prior to my humanitarian mission in Cox’s Bazar, I served in various capacities in many other humanitarian missions with international organizations: in Kenya to assist Somali refugees, in Tanzania at the refugee camps for Congolese and Burundian people, at Ugandan refugee settlements for South Sudanese refugees and in South Sudan.

I specialized in designing and managing projects that aim at preventing and responding to violence against women and girls because I grew up in an environment where domestic violence was the norm. Today, one of the things that gives most joy is to provide mentorship and couching to other female humanitarians on how to better respond to the needs of women and children who have survived violence.

I came to Cox’s Bazar to strengthen GBV integration in the health sector and I am working directly with health care providers to maximize every opportunity to identify and support survivors of violence and abuse. Our mission is to save women and children from serious medical consequences, including suicide, as a result of sexual or gender-based violence.

We know that globally over 35% of women face sexual and/or intimate partner violence in their lifetime, but in humanitarian crises, levels of these and other forms of violence based on gender grow more acute.

Humanitarian service is about alleviating human suffering. For 2 years, back in 2006, each day my mission was to mobilize our health facilities to provide treatment and other humanitarian service providers to respond to the diverse needs expressed by survivors such as shelter, protection, food, safety and security. We would also engage the community in dialogues that promote positive use of power to prevent GBV.

Being a woman at the frontline of humanitarian aid, I endured very basic conditions, insecure environments and poor road and communication networks. I also spent days and weeks without contacting my family especially away from my youngest son for more than three months. But in return, I saw how empathic, compassionate, dignifying, respectful and well trained medical health providers and other humanitarian actions can lessen the pain of the survivors, saving their lives and uplifting their dignity.