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Weathering the Storm: what decades of humanitarian aid taught me about real life

The world seems pretty bleak right now. We’re hardly managing one crisis before another hits. We’ve got too much on our equality and rights agenda — with most of it moving backwards.

I think back on my experience in humanitarian emergencies. Surely there’s something we can learn from those decades of work — the stuff we need to build resilience (even though I hate that word!) before an emergency hits. We can either be proactive, reactive, or ridiculously unprepared.

Let’s start with a story. On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country of Nepal. Nearly 9000 people died. 22,000 were severely injured. The most deadly earthquake the country had experienced in over 80 years. The capital city, Kathmandu, was flattened, buildings were toppled, landslides and avalanches occurred in the Himalayas. 600,000 homes were destroyed. One-third of the population was affected. Hundreds of thousands of people fell into poverty. The losses were extreme. Worse, the country continued to experience significant aftershocks — almost as strong as the original earthquake itself.

Prior to this tragedy, in early April, I had taken some time off work. I planned to spend a few weeks preparing for my upcoming TEDx talk, a talk that would summarize the work I’d been doing for the last two decades — responding to humanitarian emergencies around the world.

I had just begun staring at the blank sheet of paper on which the talk would magically appear when the earthquake happened. I dropped the pen and started to pack. The next day, I was on a plane to Nepal. And the page remained blank.

When something like this happens — a large-scale humanitarian emergency — a system is activated. I was once part of that system. My work focused specifically on sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies. Along with colleagues working on food, shelter, education, and other critical needs people face in emergencies, I was working on protecting people — women and girls in particular. That’s because, in an emergency, all the challenging things that used to exist before become much worse. All the forms of violence that women and girls face everywhere — in every country, every space, all the time — are now everywhere. All forms of violence increase — and new ones are created.

This was Nepal. And all the other countries I’ve worked in like Congo, Haiti, Chad, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka. And every single country. And the US in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And as a result of the COVID pandemic. No country is above this or immune to it. In this one crappy respect, we’re all the same.

Can’t you prepare before this stuff happens?!

Yes — sorta. Before I deploy, before there’s an emergency, before there’s an earthquake, before any of this, I need to be ready. Head here to hear how:

… So there I am. The earthquake happens, my go-bag is ready and I fly off the next day. At 30,000 feet, I’m reading about Nepal. I’m absorbing information, understanding who’s there, who’s doing what, what the country looks like, what the landscape is like. Nepal is largely rural, and rural areas were severely affected and nearly inaccessible. How would we reach those areas? What organizations were already there?

So, what happens?

If you want to understand response to humanitarian emergencies, here you go:

What does this mean for women?

In an emergency, bad things get worse. And working on sexual violence prevention and response is already a bad thing — even on a “good day”. In fact, there are no good days. Even without emergencies, this — the fact that sexual violence even exists — is an emergency for women.

In emergency contexts, I have to work with other actors to ensure that we are doing everything we can to prevent violence and mitigate risk. For instance, are shelters safe? Do women and girls have a space for themselves? Is food distributed in a way that ensures that women aren’t going to be exploited accessing their share? Are bathrooms safe, lit, lockable? And so on. Incidents happen when we don’t pay attention to those things.

I also would bring together the wide range of actors working on sexual violence to help them coordinate efforts. What are we doing? Who is doing it? Where? And — most importantly — what work is not being done? Leave no one behind.

What’s the plan?

As a retired humanitarian, I think of myself as perpetually living in an emergency. I’m always putting out fires, even if I’m not on the frontlines anymore. We all have our own frontlines — and we might as well be prepared for them.

For instance — a global pandemic. Who predicted that?!

So just in case you need it, my crisis management plan is here:

So what?!

I used to think my skills on the frontlines of humanitarian emergencies were not particularly transferable to the real world. Wrong! It’s about how you show steadiness, how you don’t panic. How you don’t show — or even feel — fear. Fear is paralysis. Park it. Same goes for worry. Save it for later. In the moment, inhale, exhale and get to work.

I also learned to adapt — quickly. And to do whatever needs doing. Leaders are made and unmade in these moments. I have seen it. And experienced it. And, I’ve felt it within myself.

At the same time, you’re not a hero. Don’t fly solo unless you absolutely have to. Build a team, and manage your expectations.

Clear your head and focus. If you can only do one thing, let it be the RIGHT one. Don’t take it all on, and don’t act too quickly. Our humanitarian mandate — do no harm — tells us that we must do whatever needs doing, but don’t make it worse. It’s a low bar, with a good message. Especially because lives are at stake — literally.

Reframe the crisis as an opportunity. Think about what might be possible in this circumstance, and let curiosity drive you. Yes, these are grave tragedies. Lives are lost, homes are lost, livelihoods are lost — things will never be as they were. But sometimes there are opportunities that emerge from crises — having hope will make a difference.

What’s the alternative? Total despondency? It’s hard enough to feel like we ever actually accomplish anything, but we need to muster the strength to get up every day and do it again. Every day. And that’s what I did for two decades.

So back to Nepal… and a few weeks into my stay, another massive quake happened — magnitude 7.3. So now I was there in the middle of it, not watching it, but actively living it.

We’ve all been in those kinds of situations, whether the earthquake is literal or figurative.

I did finally deliver my TEDx talk, written on the plane as I flew out of Nepal. Start where you stand, I said.

And even now, in the middle of our own emergencies. Our lives are a series of earthquakes — minor, we hope — but meaningful to us nonetheless. As a feminist and an activist, I exist at the intersection of comfort and chaos — never actually being able to say yes, the job is done.

And my mental go-bag is at the ready. I hope none of us ever really need to use it.

[This stuff comes from a speech I gave in 2021 called “Weathering the Storm.”]

#aidwork #GenderbasedViolence #Activism #GenderEquality #Women #conflict #war #Feminism #disaster #emergency #aidworker #VAW #Humanitarianaid #humanitarian #ViolenceAgainstWomen #GBV

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