World Humanitarian Day: Celebrating the #RealLifeHeroes

Oumma Bermo has devoted much of her life to promoting girls’ education and women’s rights in the rural community of Bermo, Niger. She says: “I do not consider myself a woman leader, but I think that others see me like this because everything I do is for the better”

The overwhelming majority of humanitarians around the world are local people.

Most often it is members of affected communities who are the first responders. This World Humanitarian Day, let’s celebrate, support and empower local humanitarian workers: women, men, and young people working to meet the needs of their communities.

Dilruba with young women in a workshop in Bangladesh

Dilruba (above) works with CARE’s gender-based violence team in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, providing psycho-social support and managing cases when needed. As a humanitarian worker, she says:

I have a responsibility to work with refugees during this COVID-19 crisis. They have very little knowledge and if we don’t support them at this critical time they are going to suffer the most, which is unfair. They have equal rights to live with dignity and with proper information.

Yashma Singh talking to a woman receiving humanitarian aid

Yashma Singh (above, centre), from Palwal district, Haryana, India, has always been a champion in her community for the rights of women and marginalised people. During the coronavirus pandemic, she has promoted information about social distancing in public spaces and door-to-door, including distributing sanitisers and face masks. She has also provided door-to-door food distributions, particularly for migrant workers who could not work due to the lockdown but also had no family support in the area. With the help of several people and organisations, she distributed 15-day rations to 2,000 families.

Gabriela Maria Portillo Rodriguez wearing a face mask

Gabriela María Portillo Rodríguez (above) works with CARE in the Prolempa project in Honduras. The project focuses on economic empowerment of women and young people in the Lempa region – but as COVID-19 hit Honduras, they have adapted their work to the needs the pandemic has created. Gabriela says:

There has been a great effort to the [COVID-19] response. Most of us involved in the project have not seen our families yet the whole team remains COVID-19 negative and that is a huge relief for us. We are so aware of the responsibility we bear each time we visit a community.

We go to the communities to deliver food, cash transfers, and provide capacity building. In this emergency response we are doing a bit of everything: from food baskets, to providing toiletries for health and in the case of women, we have always prioritised access to key products such as sanitary pads that are scarce and expensive in these areas. Very few times have I’ve seen women’s needs prioritised and in this project, we have made them a priority.

For me, it has been a great experience. I am happy that CARE supports women leaders so they can help in preventing COVID spreading in their community. It is such a reward to see these women so confident in themselves.

I am proud of the approach we have taken to create a visible impact [because] what matters here are people’s lives.

Humanitarian workers’ responsibilities do not stop when they get home. They also balance domestic and caring duties on top of their stressful and life-saving day jobs. This is especially true for women working in the humanitarian sector who are usually also the ones responsible for household chores and childcare, among other responsibilities.

Group of humanitarian workers in a street in Bangladesh

Farhana Mahmud (above left) works on a project in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, providing gender-based violence services to local communities. Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, she regularly visits communities to distribute hygiene kits and talk to young people about any gender-based violence concerns. Like many of our female colleagues, she is a mother, who is working to save the lives of many children and women. She says:

It is a very difficult question to answer, about my family’s reaction. But I assured them that I follow the safety rules. However, sometimes when going to the field, they don’t really take it positively. Then I try to make them understand that I am a humanitarian worker and that I am inspiring other people.

I have been away from my child, my family, for 3 months now. I can’t express this painful feeling. I can only hope that when I meet them again, they will all be in good health.

Local communities and individuals are best placed to understand and respond to the needs of their own communities when disaster strikes. They need to be empowered with funding, increased roles in decision making and autonomy in implementing humanitarian responses. Women and girls, in particular, are best placed to know what they need from the humanitarian community to respond to their situation of displacement and now to COVID-19.

Marie Toto talking to two men on Ambae island, Vanuatu

Marie Toto (above) works with CARE on the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. When Cyclone Pam hit in March 2015, the advice she gave to her family and neighbours was crucial. She says:

Whatever information I give to communities [in disaster preparation workshops] it also helped me for my family.

When Tropical Cyclone Pam started, I told my little brother ‘we don’t know how strong the cyclone is going to be but you need to prepare’.

On Marie’s advice, the family stockpiled food and firewood. It was lucky they did, because they soon had 30 mouths to feed.

All our neighbours moved inside our house, their houses were all destroyed and they didn’t have any food. They lived there for two months while they rebuilt their houses.

With that information I saved my family and our neighbours’ lives.

Marie’s job may require her to fly all over the country, which consists of many small islands – more recently she was away for two months after the 2018 Ambae island volcano eruption – but her village roots are still at the core of her humanitarian work:

You feel for the people. People out there in remote communities, they don’t have much access to information or resources so when you have the opportunity, it’s time for you to give more to them. We give our best.

Bouavanh Manichanh writing on a whiteboard

Bouavanh Manichanh (above) is an Akha ethnic minority woman from a rural area of northern Laos. She has been working with CARE International in Laos for 8 years and is currently gender advisor for our women’s empowerment programmes. She says:

Since I have been working through the communities, I can see that they have changed in a positive way, especially women and girls. Before, women always sat at the back and spoke less or had no voice, and men did not give them the opportunity to share their opinions or ideas. They did not respect women’s voices and I did not see many ethnic minority girls attending vocational schools, college or university. Most of them just supported boys. However, this has now totally changed; women can raise their voices, men support their wives to attend the meetings, there is respect in women’s leadership and good relationships within families.

I hope that all the work I have conducted will encourage women to believe in their ability, have more confidence to raise their voices, allow them to be economically empowered, and have an equal share of household tasks with their families, especially their husbands. I want women’s voices to be respected, have control over their own bodies and allow them to join in equal decision-making and to have access to their assets just as men can do. I hope to promote women leaders in the community, no discrimination between men and women and to support their girls go to school just as boys do and to make women and girls free from violence.

Composite photo of Maya Ibrahimchah and outside Beit-el-Baraka supermarket

Maya Ibrahimchah (above, left) set up a food bank in Beirut just a bit less than two years ago. Maya comes from a privileged background, but was inspired by meeting an elderly woman who had been evicted from her home and was living on the streets, with all her belongings in a single suitcase. With the economic crisis in Lebanon, Beit el-Baraka, her organisation, has become one of the most active in the country.

Beit el-Baraka runs a supermarket unlike any other in the heart of the Lebanese capital: just like in any supermarket, people can come and choose from displays of fresh vegetables, fruit, dairy produce, canned goods and other supplies – but here, they do not pay for the chosen products; they take them home free of charge, they take them with dignity.

In Lebanon, the coronavirus lockdown has amplified the biggest economic crisis the country has been through since 1990. Faced with the demand, Maya organised a fundraising webinar in cooperation with SEAL (Social and Economic Action for Lebanon) in the United States, during which she managed to raise one million dollars from the Lebanese diaspora around the world. Thanks to the money collected, she was able to send aid in Lebanese army trucks, and working in partnership with 95 local organisations, to 351 villages across Lebanon. Maya says:

If I don’t do humanitarian work, I’ll be very sad. It’s by supporting others that I am happy. It is through humanitarian work that I came to know the true meaning of happiness, the meaning of my life. For me, happiness is helping people around me change their lives, allowing them to feel safe, and giving them a chance. This is really most important because each of us deserves a chance.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.