World Humanitarian Day 2019: Local Staff are Unsung Heroes in One of the Most Dangerous Professions

Enhanced security at many locations where aid workers do their work adds to daily stress

Enhanced security at many locations where aid workers do their work adds to daily stress

This year the United Nations has dedicated World Humanitarian Day to women humanitarians and “their undying contribution in making the world a better place.”

Indeed, the unsung heroes the world should be thinking of on this day are the tens of thousands of female local staff who toil day in and day out, often in dangerous and challenging conditions, in places like Yemen, Syria and Gaza. 

In many areas of the world, humanitarian work is considered a male profession and some women who pursue this career receive little support from their families. Hopefully that mindset is changing. 

Still, we know that in duty stations where women’s roles involve visiting far-flung communities, fulfilling work duties can involve long days and safety risks. And when they return home, women are often expected to contribute to their own family’s survival by preparing meals, raising children and cleaning. 

Even in relatively peaceful Papua New Guinea, for example, female health workers told me their husbands expect them to do all of the housework on top of their daily jobs. Oftentimes this becomes nearly impossible, incredibly stressful and sometimes compromises a woman’s ability to perform her paid work.

In addition – as I highlighted last year in my CNN OpEd and on BBC World Television – few organizations provide mental health support to local staff, especially those engaged on contracts.

Surveys paint a bleak picture of working conditions in the sector, including one that estimates that sexual violent crime against aid workers has increased by 25 percent over the past two years. And as recent scandals in Oxfam and other organizations have shown, reports against colleagues or superiors are often ignored.

Female health workers face an especially precarious job as their work often involves travelling long distances by foot and without security (due to lack of resources and long distances). Last year, for example, two young student nurses were attacked and gang raped while dispensing polio vaccines in a rural village in Papua New Guinea.

For female aid workers, field work often involves travelling for long hours across difficult terrain – and plenty of time away from home

For female aid workers, field work often involves travelling for long hours across difficult terrain – and plenty of time away from home

When I worked for UNICEF in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, I collaborated with many dedicated female colleagues who seemed to, day after day, go above and beyond the call of duty to alleviate the suffering of women and children caught up in the conflict. Like many of their colleagues, they were not only working on the frontlines but also living the emergency, especially during its most violent phases. One of them, a child protection officer, showed up at work the day after parts of her house were heavily damaged from shelling.

Has much changed since the last World Humanitarian Day in 2018? I am not so sure. As I wrote last year: “For the past 15 years, it has been a day designated to recognize the millions of civilians caught in conflict and to rally support for the 450,000 or so people who work in the aid business. But there seems little cause for hope: Conflicts are lasting longer, are more complex and are packing a more lethal punch as they tend to migrate into congested urban areas.”

Increasing insecurity in many areas where aid organizations operate means that female staff have to submit to security screening that can be stressful and dehumanizing. Another important issue for local staff is that when emergency conditions require evacuation, they very rarely receive the same treatment as international staff and often have to fend for themselves.

My earnest hope is that more recognition is devoted by organizations to the challenges local staff face, especially women. As more women move into high-level positions within major aid organizations, one would think that more attention will be paid to the needs of female staff.

Turnover in the business is already high and it is critical to ensure female aid workers living an emergency in the workplace and at home receive proper support – in the form of time off, peer counselling and psycho-social support, even emergency funding when their home lives are disrupted through no fault of their own.

It is time to continue the long-overdue shift from paying lip service to supporting practical ways to truly pay tribute to the dedication of female humanitarian workers. While the annual World Humanitarian Day is a fitting occasion to honour the sacrifices and contributions of aid workers, it should also be a time for finding meaningful solutions to ease the burden of their work.

Michael Bociurkiw