Friday July 01, 2022

Women humanitarians – a force to reckon with

August 19, 2019

The World Humanitarian Day is celebrated annually under different themes to pay tribute to thousands of men and women providing life-saving assistance and long-term rehabilitation to disaster-hit communities, and to those injured or killed on the front lines in some of the most difficult terrains of the world.

It marks the day when the then Brazilian Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq Sérgio Vieira de Mello and 21 of his colleagues were killed in the bombing of UN Headquarters, Baghdad on August 19, 2003.

The day – established by the UNGA in 2008 and first officially celebrated in 2009 – aims to increase public awareness about humanitarian assistance activities around the world and the importance of international cooperation, to rally support for the people affected by crises, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, to celebrate and reinforce the achievements of humanity, and to make the world a better place for the less fortunate and the underprivileged.

Each year a theme is chosen to celebrate the Day. This year, the Day has been dedicated to celebrate thousands of those unsung women humanitarians who are working shoulder to shoulder with their counterparts to serve the humanity, and to hundreds of those who sustained injuries or died with their boots on.

Women make up more than half of the Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers around the world and are among the first to respond in disasters, epidemics and conflicts.

They involve themselves in every aspect of response, from search and rescue and assessing needs, to looking after the sick and elderly and using the social media to convey information and hence equally suffer in the field like their male counterparts.

According to the data compiled by different international humanitarian organizations, 119 female aid workers were killed in 24 countries between 1996 and 2018. Twenty-nine female workers were killed in the war-plagued Afghanistan, 26 in Pakistan and 12 in Somalia.

While talking about the job of women humanitarians and the associated challenges and threats, we cannot forget to mention Pakistan where they face numerous challenges while working out in the field.

They are vulnerable to boos, innuendos, physical violence and violent attacks particularly in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. The women humanitarians involved in administering polio drops to children have been kidnapped, gunned down, and even butchered at the hands of non-state actors, while those out of their reach have been branded agents of foreign powers.

However, despite all this discouraging propaganda, these never say die women humanitarians have refused to throw in the towel and are exploiting the vast reserves of their energy and talent to improve the human rights situation in Pakistan.

Among the female humanitarians who rose to the international fame owing to their extensive work are late Asma Jehangir, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Alina Azhar, Naila Alam, Yasmeen Durrani, Saba Gul, Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Namira Salim, Parveen Saeed, and Sabeen Mehmud.

Asma Jahangir was the most robust voice for human rights in Pakistan. She founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987 to champion the noble cause of safeguarding the human rights. She fought injustice, wrongdoings, and aggression for 30 years and was recognized as a “giant” in the global human rights movement.

She fearlessly defended the cases of minorities, women, and children in prisons and was recipient of several national awards, including the Sitara-i-Imtiaz Pakistan in 1995. She was also awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize for 2018 after her death at the age of 66.

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy seems to be leading the women humanitarians in Pakistan after Asma Jehangir for highlighting the issue of honour killings in Pakistan. She has two Oscars (Academy Awards), six Emmy Awards and Hilal-i-Imtiaz Pakistan to her credit. Her film – A Girl in the River — The Price of Forgiveness – prompted the government to change the law on honour killings in the country.

Alina Azhar, 20, is the first Pakistani woman to have received The Diana Award for her humanitarian efforts.

Naila Alam and Yasmeen Durrani have been honoured by the White House for their humanitarian work. The “Honour of Hope Award” recipients run a philanthropic venture Express Care’ which provides daily essentials like food and medicine to low income people and finding them jobs.

Saba Gul is the founder and CEO of Popinjay – a social enterprise that empowers marginalised underprivileged girls in Pakistan with education and provides them with employment by selling their goods like embroidered handbags to a high-end market.

Maria Toorpakai Wazir is a professional squash player, who has won international acclaim for Pakistan. She is a prolific speaker against extremism in society and has spoken at events such as TedxTeen.

Parveen Saeed introduced Khana Ghar to provide hot meals for three rupees to low income individuals. Khan Ghar has thus become a lifeline for hundreds of poor men and women who are unable to make ends meet.

Sabeen Mahmud, director of T2F [The Second Floor], a cafe and arts space that has been a mainstay of Karachi’s human rights activists, was shot dead shortly after hosting an event on the rights abuses. She was shot four times at close range, with bullets piercing her shoulder, chest, and abdomen.

As the world celebrates the World Humanitarian Day today with much fanfare, the Day demands the political leaderships to protect the life and honour of women humanitarians, acknowledge their work and remove barriers that stop them from utilizing their skills and experience to humanitarian response, as they are usually at the heart of conflicts or humanitarian crises.

The Day also demands the non-state actors not to treat or doubt the humanitarians, particularly women, as agents of foreign powers and not only respect and recognize their work, but also ensure protection to them from attacks guaranteed under the international law.

The international human rights organizations must ensure that women are equally represented in top decision-making roles since this profession is based on the basic principles of impartiality, neutrality, and humanity and on the belief that all people have inherent dignity.

— The writer is Secretary General Pakistan Red Crescent Society.