Oxfam women staff delivering assistance during flood

Breaking Down Barriers & Lifting Up Communities: Oxfam’s Women Humanitarian Leaders

Women humanitarians overcome challenges and assist those who suffer from the impacts of conflict and disasters in Myanmar.

Women are too often viewed only as victims when crisis hits a community. But in reality, they are often a community’s most critical first responders in an emergency. Women's experiences and skills bring so much value to any humanitarian response. On 19 August, we are celebrating World Humanitarian Day and honoring the strong women humanitarian leaders we are so proud to work with in the community, as civil society partners and as colleagues.

Humanitarian work always entails complexity and risk and that is certainly true in Myanmar, where natural disasters, protracted conflict and displacement affect communities across the country. In the face of such challenges seventy-one women work with Oxfam in Myanmar in support of our humanitarian efforts. This number is more than half of Oxfam staff in Myanmar. Some of them work in our offices to support field operations, some of them are implementing humanitarian programming in community.. They all are playing vital roles to ensure communities in need are receiving life-saving assistance and protection.

Meet Mee Mee, one of our humanitarian women leaders:

“I worked as a civil servant before I joined the humanitarian sector. Throughout my life, I encountered discriminations as a woman. In the humanitarian world, I had to try hard at the beginning especially my family members were so worried for me because I have to work in the area where disasters and conflicts happened,” says Mee Mee Htun, senior WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) Coordinator based in Sittwe, Myanmar. She is one of our key women humanitarians working to build latrines and water-related infrastructure in IDP camps, conduct regular water quality checks and raise the awareness of community members about how to minimize the risk of disease.

It was not an easy entry for women to the humanitarian world. Families’ worries and a community’s discounting of women in leadership positions are all something many women humanitarian grapple with. They also face societal expectations about women as caregivers: she who must take care of her baby; She who must do house-hold chores; She who must support her husband.

“I have to work with male colleagues. We go to the field and villages together to raise communities’ awareness on disaster preparedness. It was hard in the beginning. People gossiped, even in front of me. They said I used to go out together with men. So, I will be an easy one to be approached (For relationship purpose). It was painful but if I was too emotional on their words, I will not be able to help who are in needs,” Ma Thawdar Aung, Gender and Inclusion Officer explains how people’s perceptions of her as a woman humanitarian impacted her. She continues, “I experienced the cyclone Nargis which devastated millions of lives. I lost friends and relatives by Nargis. So, I work on disaster risks reduction and humanitarian. I enjoy helping others. I am part of Oxfam’s humanitarian team. I feel I am empowered to be a leader in Oxfam.”

It is essential to have more women humanitarians as we work towards gender balance in the sector. Diverse women’s experiences, perspectives and skills are needed to ensure we can respond to communities’ needs in the most appropriate and comprehensive way possible. Furthermore, we know that crises impact men and women differently with the specific needs of diverse groups needing to be taken into account. Oxfam tries to do this in designing latrines and constructing water points that takes into account the different needs and concerns of all community members. As Mee Mee described it,“women and men in the camps have different situations. It is very much easier for women humanitarian workers to understand the needs of women in emergency and crisis to address their needs.”

As Thawdar urged, “We need more women in leadership for disasters preparedness and humanitarian response.”

We celebrate Thawdar, Mee Mee and the many other women humanitarian leaders!