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Across Africa, women humanitarians are stepping up to help those in need

Uganda. Women humanitarians

Across Africa, women humanitarians are stepping up to help those in need

Today, we celebrate these women who work in various capacities across the continent to help people forced to flee conflict.
19 August 2019
Sheila Akullu was inspired from a young age to help others.

In marking World Humanitarian Day today, we pay special tribute to women humanitarians around the world. These incredible aid workers answer the call of service and work in various capacities across the African continent to help those forced to flee.

Here are some of their stories:

Sheila Akullu, Assistant Water and Sanitation (WASH) Officer in Palorinya settlement, Uganda

"I was born and lived my childhood in Northern Uganda, an area that was affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) war for many years. I saw humanitarian agencies including UNHCR giving aid to the IDPs in Northern Uganda.  Although I was young, I was inspired to work hard when I was so young and still in school so that one day I would be able to help the less privileged people.

Uganda. women humanitarians
Sheila Akullu checks a water point in Palorinya settlement, Uganda

Engineering being a male dominated profession, there are moments that I have had to work with difficult male counterparts with negative perceptions/attitudes towards ladies including thinking they know much better than me. But I always stay positive and motivated because creating a positive impact in the lives of refugees is what inspires me to do my job. 

My inspiration is also drawn from my own strong belief that I can bring a smile on the face of those living in difficult situations through provision of safe water and sanitation hence contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 6 which aims at ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all."

Martha Kow-Donkor, 51, Field Officer (Protection) in Baidoa, Somalia

Martha Kow-Donkor knows exactly how it feels to be a refugee. At the height of a major civil war in the early nineties, she fled her native Liberia for Tabou, Cote D’Ivorie. For close to eight years she lived in exile before spontaneously returning back home to Liberia in 1998.

Somalia. Women humanitarians
Martha (right) visits a displaced Yemeni family in Baidoa, Somalia.

“My passion for humanitarian work developed when I was a refugee after seeing humanitarian agencies including UNHCR advocating and responding to the needs of myself, my family and other Liberian refugees," says Martha.

Martha’s career with the humanitarian sector began over two decades ago in 1998. Soon after returning home despite the war that lasted up to 2003, she pursued job opportunities with different NGOs for five years before she joined UNHCR in 2005. 

She has been serving UNHCR ever since, initially on secondment, as an International United Nations Volunteer and now as a staff member. Martha has also served in various countries including Yemen, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

Martha is currently based in Baidoa, Somalia where she works as a Field Officer (Protection) for UNHCR. She leads a team of six staff members in responding to the needs of Internally Displaced People (IDPs), returnees and the host communities. The team also works in coordination with humanitarian partners, host communities and the government.

“I know there may be challenging times but I am passionate about serving vulnerable people in displacement situations."

Having been in the humanitarian field for over two decades, Martha is well aware of the challenges that comes with her work.  But her resilience and commitment to the cause keeps her going.

“I know there may be challenging times but I am passionate about serving vulnerable people in displacement situations. I had the same experience in Cote D’Ivoire coupled with language barriers. I thank UNHCR and humanitarian agencies for being there for me and my family. I am committed to continue my humanitarian work with integrity, professionalism and will continue to be the voice of those who are mostly in need.”

Deka Hassan Ahmed, 34, Protection Associate in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

"I work on legal and physical protection of persons of concern."

"When I go to the field, I often meet many different people, especially women, who are very supportive of the work we do. This one time I met an elderly lady in her sixties, who was participating in an assessment that we were conducting and was very active and displayed great leadership. She was encouraging the women to share their concerns with us. I really admired how she kept telling them this: “Don’t think about whether you will get direct assistance or not, rather, share your challenges and protection risks. That is more important for us to mention.” Her contribution made the people becom very positive and they worked well with us. To meet with that lady was really like a blessing."

Millicent Lusigi, 38, Nutrition officer in Gambella, Ethiopia

"I love what I do although it can be challenging because ensuring the nutritional wellbeing of refugees is sustained, given their limited access to adequate food is tough. But I feel happy when I see the smile that was once faint, of a malnourished child, now happy and able to play and lead a normal life again."

"The work I do is lifesaving. The fact that it indirectly and directly impacts the lives of the young children through generations is mind blowing; the genuine smiles I receive from those who know the work I do is priceless. Nutrition saves lives."

Rita Namugala, 56, Driver in Kigoma, Tanzania

"I first joined UNHCR in 2002 as a driver and up to now, I am working in that capacity. I like working with UNHCR as it involves saving lives and giving hope to people who have lost hope.

"As the only female driver, it makes me feel good to stand out in a male dominated culture and function."

"As the only female driver in the operation, it makes me feel good to stand out in a male dominated culture and function. I feel like an inspiration to other women in my community.

Sometimes, when the car I drive gets a break down or a punctured tyre and my passenger (usually my seniors) offer to help me, I feel awkward because it’s not their responsibility and this will happen mainly because I am a woman."

Bisharo Ali Hussein, 29, Protection Associate in Galkacyo, Somalia 

"I oversee, monitor and coordinate refugees' and asylum seekers' protection and ensure they get quality basic services. 

I love my job because it gives me hope that no matter the situation, it will get better. My work gives me satisfaction especially when I am able to advocate for a POC to get the assistance that is needed. Seeing their smile after they receive assistance is a joyful reward.

I realise refugees and asylum seekers are like the rest of us. They feel pain and they need love and care as all of us. Therefore, they deserve respect and opportunities like any other. They complain and seek assistance not because they want to but the circumstances have put them there. I love my work no matter the challenges and obstacles because nothing is compared to serving humanity."

Stories compiled by Njoki Mwangi, UNHCR Somalia, Yonna Tukundane, UNHCR Uganda, Goodness Mrema, UNHCR Tanzania and Maria Dombaxi, UNHCR Ethiopia.