Episode 85: Far From Home - Women in Aid

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success.

This time…when you’re doing your job far from home, culture clash is almost inevitable. But in disaster zones in developing countries…

“You have to go into that and act as a woman, in many cases act as a manager, in situations or cultures where that’s really very rare or completely unheard of.’

Which can be uncomfortable for both parties.

A lot of us donate to charities or nonprofits. Depending on which causes you care about some of that money may go to a group like Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders -- an NGO that helps people in desperate situations, usually abroad. But how often do any of us think about the workers at those organizations? The people who work in the refugee camps or help get fresh water to remote communities? If I ever hear the words “aid worker” on the news it’s usually because one of them has been kidnapped or killed on the job.

Aid work – like other helping professions – is female-dominated. And a couple of months ago I heard from one of these women. She’s a listener and she said you know, we hear a lot about women CEOs, we even hear about women in the military, but we never hear about women in aid. And there is a lot to talk about.

We’re not using her real name because she doesn’t want to hurt her chances of landing her next job.

“I’m Jessica and I’m an aid worker. So I work in humanitarian response which kind of means working in emergency situations.”

Jessica is 28 now. She started her career in South Sudan, working with displaced people, then after a few years she went on to Jordan, then back to South Sudan, then to Sierra Leone. Sometimes the work can be dangerous – she has hidden in a bunker for hours while under bombardment – sometimes it’s more pedestrian…

“In Sierra Leone I was distributing hygiene kits to schools – going to rural villages and trying to organize how is this going to work in terms of the cars, and what we put in there, and on what days you do what.”

When we spoke she was on a break in London, between contracts. She says that’s how it works for most aid workers who go abroad for their jobs. You’re gone for 6 or 9 months. The work is intense. Then you go back home to flop for a while before starting a new gig.

“When I come back to London and I’m there for 2 weeks what I want to do is eat a lot of cheese, and lie down, see my friends and watch a lot of Netflix.”

But this time she’s taking a longer break. She’s thinking hard about what to do next. Because she says one of the tough things about this work is the utter lack of work/life balance.

“When I first entered the sector I was very naïve, it was my first proper job, I’d just come to South Sudan, and it was 2 days after independence and it was all very exciting. And I had dinner with a woman in her late 40s who basically sat me down and said, you be careful entering into this sector because what happens to a lot of women is they have a lot of fun, then when they get to their mid 30s they realize they don’t have a husband or children or any stability, and they want it, and by that time it’s too late for them to get it because by that time all the men in the sector are dating younger women. And obviously that’s a generalization and some people don’t do that, but that’s definitely a feeling, and I’m aware there are a lot of women older than me who’ve been in the sector for longer who feel that it’s challenging and maybe have enjoyed some aspects of their lifestyle but feel there is a cost.”

Jessica says because of that conversation, she’s been thinking about her priorities from the get-go. She says she’s turned down jobs because she’s put her relationship first…

“And trying to have a relationship even when you both work in this sector can be quite difficult particularly at the beginning where maybe you have fewer job opportunities available to you.”

She’s been in a relationship for three years. And in all that time they’ve lived in the same place for a whopping two months. She says she’s back in London now in part because that’s where her partner is at the moment, and she decided she had to give things a chance.

“Of course you get regular holidays. But it’s not like a long distance relationship where you can drive for 3 or 4 hours to see somebody, it’s one where you need to take a UN helicopter to go to the place where they are. It’s not something you can do regularly. And I just felt if I want to continue this and not just have a relationship via Skype, and by Skype chat because often the internet isn’t good enough to support video…then I need to really consider what I want to do. And I think a lot of people, you see they’ll have a relationship with someone in a certain location and when one or the other leaves they will end up breaking up. Not all of them. Some do manage to go to the next location and find jobs in similar locations. I mean of course for people who are not straight, cisgender people it’s much more complicated. You may be working in countries for example where being a homosexual is illegal, and that’s also something a lot of organizations struggle with how to deal with that. I’ve known people who’ve felt they have to hide that for security reasons. I’ve known lots of colleagues who are gay, and I haven’t come across any trans people and I think it’s because it must be very challenging for them. My gay colleagues, they’re fine, they deal with it but it’s more challenging and there’s also confusion to an extent about what is the policy and how much is it the organization’s…how much of it is it a personal issue versus a work issue. Because in those situations then it can bring negative things against the organization itself, etcetera…it’s a very thorny issue and I think one the sector is trying to address. There’s definitely still a lot more work to be done on that.”

What she has to contend with on a personal level is much more benign. It’s just this question of how are they going to make things work long-term, let alone with children, given the distances involved and the work they do? She says it’s not just her who’s doing the thinking.

“We sat down and each wrote down the top 10 countries we’d be interested in working in and then got together and saw which ones overlapped. We’ve done this a couple of times. It does look like a very strange list. At the moment Afghanistan is on three, Nigeria is on there, any of the countries involved in the Burundi crisis…so any of the countries where they have refugees at the moment. Myanmar, Iraq, Pakistan…and Central African Republic and DRC…”

The Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Which is perhaps not where most people might think about setting up a love nest together.”

But she says those places – that’s where the two of them both have an interest and where they’re likely to get jobs they’re both qualified for.

Given how demanding the work can be, I wanted to know what she loved about it.  

“I mean it’s very complicated, obviously I’m doing it because I have a desire to help, and I think the work I do is useful and makes a difference. I’m also aware it’s very complicated, and there are a lot of issues going on there, and that it’s not as simple as me going and helping people. But also I like the adventure, l like meeting people from new countries, I like being thrown into the middle of very difficult circumstances and always having the adrenaline of changing situations and having to adapt to that.”    

London can feel quite sedate by comparison.

So as she says she likes the difficult-ness of her job in many ways. But one of the things she mentioned when she first emailed me was what a big problem sexual assault and sexual harassment are in the aid world. Jessica says the worst thing that’s happened to her is a wildly inappropriate comment. But she says talk to female aid workers and many of them have horror stories about lecherous bosses who feel they have complete impunity to behave that way. Others have been raped by colleagues. You can check out the site reporttheabuse.org to get a sense of these stories. The URL is https://reporttheabuse.org/

Jessica says dealing with sexual harassment is trickier than it might be if you were in your home country. For one thing, the local culture could be very male-centric...

“And of course it’s further complicated by fact you’re working with so many different cultures than your own. Not just the people from the country you’re working with. The ex-pats come from all over the world…it’s not like all the expats are European, you get expats from other countries who also may have different perceptions of gender, dating, what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, so you have to fit into that to a certain extent. You have to be culturally sensitive to your colleagues as well. But that kind of complicates the issue.”

Because what’s normal male-to-female behavior to some is insulting to others. And the environment they all work in can exacerbate this stuff.

“I do think there’s a culture of machoness within the sector caused by people being very stressed and being like, well, we’re in this disaster zone, all bets are off. So that can make it difficult. And also you’re in a place where you’re entirely dependent on your organization in a lot of places. There is no active local police force or government that would have the capacity or laws to protect you that you might expect in your own country so you’re entirely dependent on your organization for that kind of support.”

And that support doesn’t always come. She says at least the topic is now being discussed more openly in the aid community. It’s a start.

Onto a more minor difficulty. I did a whole show last year on menstruation at work, and society’s attitudes to women’s bodily functions. Jessica says you think it’s bad having a period at your office? Try the delights of menstruating in a remote area. Local women have no access to tampons or pads. So neither to you.

“In terms of sanitary equipment you have to bring your own stuff…so if you’re packing for 3 or 6 months or you don’t know how long, then you have to bring all that with you. You often also have squat toilets, and often they’re not that clean because you just can’t be clean within that situation. When you have a squat toilet that’s, there’s no concrete walls, it’s made of grass, or maybe plastic sheeting, you are going to get flies and lizards and everything like that around. In some places of course it’s difficult to buy toilet paper. That is obviously something that people try to provide because culturally it’s difficult for some people not to have that around. But it’s also something that especially if you’re traveling around, you just get used to. And yes, having periods is difficult. And I have had the situation once where I drove two and a half hours to a field location, went to the loo, realized I had my period, and literally my only option was to drive 2.5 hours back the other way.

I guess I could have asked the women who lived there but unfortunately the reality for a lot of women in the world is they use grass or bits of old cloth. And I feel very bad that’s something they have to do, but it’s not something I think I could deal with myself. But that was very awkward telling the driver, ‘I have to go back, now. I cannot stay here for the rest of the day as planned.’ And after that I learnt to always be prepared. Because it’s not like in countries where I’m used to where there’s always some kind of solution.”

That made me think about just how different her work life is from most of her friends back home. She says she has a good, close group of friends, particularly women friends, but talking about work can feel weird.

“How can you really explain to somebody what it’s like to work surrounded by 70,000 refugees or to be in a position where you see people without enough food, or everyone around you is absolutely desperate and has had to leave their homes and has lost relatives? It is quite an overwhelming experience that does change you. And I’m sure that’s the same for other contexts as well.

Within the sector you make jokes about it, well about funny things that happen, and I think that’s kind of a coping mechanism, but within normal people conversation, or normal among the people I grew up amongst, it can seem that you’re bringing in all these giant, serious things to the conversation they wouldn’t necessarily normally think about except if they’re watching the news for half an hour they’d go, oh, that’s terrible, and turn it off. So you can feel you are bringing an uncomfortable subject into a very comfortable position. And it does feel like others will struggle to understand that aspect of you.”

She says it’s totally different with other aid workers – they get it.  

Still, despite the difficulties and discomfort that can come with the job, she says she’s learned so much.

“It does expose you to different ways of being a woman. You get exposed to all these different cultures where femininity or what that means is expressed very differently…you have to go as a woman, act as a manger, in situations or cultures where that’s very rare or completely unheard of for the people living there. What do you do if you’re a manager for a group of 20 people where you’ve tried to hire as many women as you could, but very few women applied because there’s a cultural barrier against that, so the majority are men with maybe a couple of younger women who have never married. And none of these men have ever been in a situation where they’ve ever had a woman in a position of authority over them. And you have to navigate that. It’s a fine line between you don’t want to be the random foreigner who’s coming in, bossing people about and being horrible, and not sensitive to the nuances of the situation, but also you don’t want to be a pushover. So that’s an interesting dynamic.”

She says she has had criticism from local staff, but she thinks of it as part of the job. She says navigating those social relationships is a challenge – but she likes it. And she didn’t articulate this but I will. She’s a young, white woman often managing people of a different race who are often older than her. Which surely adds to that dynamic.

She says the local staff, they’re working in their own country, and that country has undergone a disaster, so they’re stressed out, just like the people they’re all trying to help. Jessica says you have to handle each situation with sensitivity – particularly if you’re female.

“Some people do it without much sensitivity but just get respected for being leaders or for being macho. So I think some men in the sector play up to that macho-ness that might be found more in that area or in that country…that’s how then they act as a leader. But as a woman you have to go in and create your own way to try and get the work done and to solve interpersonal conflicts between your staff members, which may have strange and difficult cultural aspects that are quite alien to you, while being an effective manager. I once had to deal with 2 male staff, one of whom was accusing the other of threatening to kill him using witchcraft…which I personally don’t believe in but I have to take it seriously and not disregard that person’s feelings and fears. And also be aware that normally they probably wouldn’t be going to a woman who’s younger than them to solve a dispute between them. In that case I tried to facilitate dialogue between the two and then said that was something they needed to discuss among their families and the community.

But that’s just one example. I have lots of other examples. I had one issue where some male staff were accusing a female staff member of having premarital sex. Which was difficult obviously because that’s something me and all my friends do, and don’t think is wrong. But it’s not really my place to say that and say they’re being stupid without acknowledging the fact that accusation in their world has a very different meaning than what it does to me.”

On the one hand she wanted to be a feminist and tell these guys to stop slut-shaming. On the other hand she knew that would backfire. Again, she says she had to try to respect the local culture. So she told the men there should be a distinction between work life and private life – that it wasn’t appropriate to bring stuff about this woman’s private life into the workplace unless it affected the work.

She says to this day she doesn’t know if she handled it the right way.

And she says after all these are only her experiences. She’s a highly educated woman from the west. Women from different backgrounds will have other experiences.

She’s grateful to have lived and worked with some of them. She says it’s one of the best things about the job.

In what other sector would I spend five months literally living in the same room as a Kenyan woman in her 40s or 50s, and trying to sneak in a bit drunk on Saturday night…but also seeing her and her missing her children back in Kenya, but feeling that this opportunity was a good one for her professionally. I don’t think there’s any other sector where I could have that experience of being so close to so many people, but also so many women of different ages and different cultures to me.”

Jessica is still considering her next career move. And I’m setting up an interview with her Kenyan roommate to hear her side of the women-in-aid story.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.