When you hear the phrase “aid worker”, what picture comes to mind? Probably a khaki-clad hero working far from home, right? Maybe an Australian?
While it’s true some aid workers travel – and there are many heroic Aussies out there – the vast majority of people who carry out lifesaving aid work for organisations like CARE are locals.
World Humanitarian Day is this week, so we’re celebrating the local heroes changing lives in their communities – people like Nizhan Ramadhan.
Nizhan works for CARE in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where she was born and raised. It’s her job to support women and girls who have fled war and violence, and to make sure everybody – no matter their gender – has equal access to opportunities like education.
Most of the people Nizhan helps are Yazidi – an ethnic minority who have faced brutal violence under ISIS, including the enslavement and rape of thousands of women and girls.
The story of one such woman – a 26-year-old just like Nizhan – particularly moved her.
“She had been living under ISIS for five years, she lost her husband and her son, and now she lives in a camp with her five kids and no income,” Nizhan said, relaying the woman’s story.
“Her eyes, when she was telling me her story, were glittering from tears. She was exposed to every kind of violence.”
CARE is training local health workers in Iraq to provide psychological assistance and maternal healthcare. Nizhan and her co-workers have also helped ISIS escapees to set up businesses and earn an income.
On top of the trauma of war, Nizhan said many women in Iraq face challenges in their own families and communities, including child marriage and limited access to family planning.
“Most of the women in the camps who are above 30, they were forced to marry when they were under 18. But now, step-by-step, it’s changing.”
Much of the change has come about by engaging “gatekeepers” – the religious and tribal leaders who have power and influence over people’s attitudes. For this, Nizhan said, local aid workers are crucial.
“If international staff go and talk about gender equality or women’s empowerment, religious leaders, they say ‘this is a Western mindset’.
“But if local women staff do that, and they share their experience and say ‘this is happening, this is reality, women and girls are living a miserable life’ then they will accept the message more easily.”
Nizhan is no stranger to gender discrimination in her own life. When she started working, many people would judge her for travelling without male relatives.
“People didn’t have the mentality to accept that a single woman would ride in a car with a driver alone, and speak to men, be talkative and speak up for women’s rights.
“But we have to keep going. We shouldn’t keep silent and live the way which some people, some men, want us to live. No, we have to fight.”