Thursday June 21, 2012
The astonishing work of female NGO workers
By LOUISA LIM
Forget Wonder Woman. These women prove that real-life superheroines do exist, and they’re not necessarily dressed in a tiny red bustier and star-speckled shorts.
THESE women visit disaster zones as the residents flee, alleviate the suffering of thousands, and inspire others with their compassion and graciousness.
Female NGO workers’ contributions are phenomenal, but they hardly ever make the headlines. There’s also an often-untold aspect about this line of work: the personal costs endured by these women. Only last year, NBC’s Ann Curry was in Mogadishu with a humanitarian aid worker from the World Food Programme. “How do you come out of that, come out of looking at that, without just wanting to cry?” she asked.
“I don’t — I don’t,” the aid worker replied.
Because the work is fraught with anxiety (and danger, at times), many NGOs often face difficulties in recruiting more women. However, Star2 managed to find four astonishing women in humanitarian work who forge on with perseverance and conviction. We want to know why — and how — they do it.
Walking into disaster
Jessica Wong, 27, programme officer, Mercy Malaysia
Getting into Mindanao, the Philippines, after a severe tropical storm has just hit would probably be unthinkable for many people. But for 27-year-old Jessica Wong, it was just another day at work.
As programme officer in Mercy Malaysia’s relief operations department, she provides medical relief, sustainable health-related development and risk-reduction activities for communities in both crisis and non-crisis situations.
“Apart from coordinating health-related projects for Malaysia and abroad (in countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka), I am also deployed for disaster relief operations when the need arises,” she says.
Wong, who started out in the banking sector, says she developed an interest in the humanitarian field after she began volunteering at local community centres, student societies and non-governmental organisations.
“The resilience of the human spirit is something that never ceases to amaze me,” she says. “I hope the projects we carry out for the communities we serve will go a long way towards building local capacities and resilience in responding to disasters. Seeing communities thrive after a project has been completed is most rewarding.”
One such project was reconstructing and re-equipping a divisional hospital for the local health authorities in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The hospital has since been successfully handed over.
“It was the culmination of nearly a year’s hard work by our volunteers, staff and local partners. The hospital now serves approximately 10,000 people from the surrounding areas,” she says.
Nonethless, Wong claims that the general public often have a distorted view of humanitarian aid in Malaysia, which makes her work more difficult.
“Often, there is a misconception that money and goods will fix problems but what is more important is for the assistance to match the beneficiaries’ needs and for that help to be sustainable,” she says.
There is also a limit to what aid organisations can do, says Wong.
“More often than not, the lifespan and sustainability of aid programmes are contingent on funding, which is usually unpredictable. Of course, given the opportunity, I would like to do more but I do realise there are intricacies involved that result in limitations. I have learnt to accept that.”
Rich in good deeds
Anrie Too, 29, fundraising manager, National Cancer Society
Most people are probably familiar with the 29-year-old Anrie Too and her role as a ditzy pageant contestant in Joe Hasham’s Malaysian Girls and countless other local productions. However, mention her other job with the National Cancer Society of Malaysia and all you’re likely to get is blank stares. But working for an NGO has always been on her life’s to-do list, and when an opening in the society became available, she jumped at it.
“I get to tell myself every day that whatever I accomplish for that day, regardless of how small, it will impact the life of someone else in possibly a big way,” she says.
When people think of humanitarian workers, they picture disaster responders handing out water, food and first-aid kits. However, as fundraising manager for the National Cancer Society of Malaysia, Too’s work takes place mostly in an office.
At first, her decision to join the society drew surprised reactions from those around her. “People asked me if I’m going through a phase in life. They asked me if I was making an emotional decision. But it was none of those,” she says, adding that, although no one close to her had suffered the Big C, she has witnessed first-hand the toll it took on her friend when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“The ultimate goal of any NGO should be its own demise, because when an NGO becomes redundant, that basically means its vision has been accomplished. Thus essentially, working for an NGO is working against societal normalcy. But anything in life that is worth having, is worth working for. So, I say, just go for it,” she explains.
Although she is not earning top money, Too finds that her job fulfils her in a different way.
“There is so much more in life than just money,” she says. “Aside from the fact that I get to meet and work with amazing people with an incredible sense of selflessness, I get to take home with me the sense of having contributed to the betterment of the society, albeit in a small way.”
She has, however, suffered one or two disappointments during the course of her work. One project, in particular, left a huge impression on her because of her inability to fulfil the dream of a cancer patient.
“She passed away before I had the chance to rectify the situation. This incident has disappointed me in so many ways – but mainly, knowing that sometimes, I can’t get everything right,” she says.
Too often dreams that, one day, she would meet a person who would tell her that what she’s been doing made a difference in their life. That’s why one of her most memorable moments happened when she was presenting a cheque to a cancer patient’s daughter.
“She rewarded me with the most gracious and sincerest thank you,” says Too.
In all humility
Vizla Kumaresan, 32, clinical psychologist
Ask Vizla Kumaresan why she chose to become a clinical psychologist in Health Equity Initiatives, an NGO that provides free mental health consultations to marginalised communities in Malaysia, and she’ll probably shrug her shoulders.
“It seems like I fell into it,” says Vizla, 32. “From the time I returned to Malaysia after studying overseas, I had been working or volunteering with NGOs. It also showed me a different way of working – by feminist principles, respecting and practising democracy, and with an understanding of and respect for human rights.
“When I completed my degree in Clinical Psychology, I thought long and hard about what kind of work I wanted to do, and I felt more and more inclined to remain in a similar environment.”
The most rewarding aspect of her job, she explains, is to be able to work with “some of the most generous, giving, intelligent, funny and selfless people” that she would not otherwise have the chance to meet.
There are, however, numerous challenges to contend with. Vizla claims the public is often to blame for this, because they tend to label and mistreat her clients, most of whom are refugees, homosexuals, transgenders and those suffering from mental illness.
“These groups of people have come to accept that disrespect and violence is a fact of life, through everyday interactions with people, right up to the way they are treated by public institutions and those in power,” says Vizla, adding that she hopes more people will come to understand the needs of these people and see that they are no different from anyone else.
It’s difficult for Kumaresan not to be emotionally affected by these sad stories. Two-and-a-half years into her job, she suffered a burnout. “I took off to India for a much-needed holiday. I haven’t gotten much of a rest because it’s easy to neglect your personal well-being,” she says.
She has since taken on a different role – as Coordinator of Mental Health Services – and is now responsible for coordinating a unit and supervising a team of clinical psychologists. “It’s less stressful this way,” she says. “I’m also more in tune with what I’m feeling and thinking.”
But there’s also a more profound lesson to her story.
“We’re people, too, and we have issues like everyone else. That’s why it’s important for a practitioner to grow – both personally and professionally – by engaging in therapy ourselves,” she says.
For those who want to follow in her footsteps, Vizla has this to say: “People need to realise that the job is not just about the glamour, or the power or authority that comes with the qualifications.” One needs a high degree of humility in the field. You shoulder a lot of responsibility.”
Part of the change
Nabila Nasir, 26, Regional Resource Mobilisation Officer, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)
Nabila Nasir, 26, counts her blessings when she wakes up every morning.
“Recently, I was lucky enough to visit a project in the Pacific called ‘Sistas Savve’ which loosely translates to ‘Girls Can’ in English – an ongoing 10-week programme for young and single mothers in the Solomon Islands,” says Nabila who works for an NGO that is part of a global network of family planning associations.
Apart from increasing access to comprehensive health services as well as sexuality education, she assists IPPF in advocating for policies that promote and defend sexual and reproductive health. They also promote gender and women’s rights and self-esteem, livelihood and financial literacy, and poverty reduction.
“In a small facility centre, I spent half a day with the local girls, learning about family planning and making cloth sanitary pads,” she says.
“Out of the 20 participants, only one was able to converse in English. Her name was Lauren and she told me that most girls do not receive education beyond primary school, and they also marry early. They do not know the risks of HIV or that they can decide when to have children, if they choose to have kids. So, being a part of the programme gave them opportunities they would never otherwise get.”
This short visit caused her to feel thankful for simple privileges that she and her peers sometimes take for granted, like education, food and running water or access to services.
But it’s not just doom and gloom. In a field where she sees so much inequity, she also feels a lot of love.
“Before I left, I hugged Lauren and thanked her for sharing her experiences with me. Her big friendly smile is one that I will carry with me forever!” she says.
Nabila first got to know about IPPF while attending a conference on reproductive and sexual health in KL several years back. Its humanitarian arm, which rolls out training and programmes in disaster-affected communities, was what drew Nabila to IPPF.
In Mongolia, they provide mobile services to those living in rural steppes, a vast countryside of temperate grasslands where healthcare is not easily available. In the Philippines, they became one of the first to respond in the aftermath of Typhoon Sendong, ensuring mechanisms were in place so that pregnant women were not neglected. In Thailand, they consult sex workers on encouraging condom use via peer education.
These days, she works with men, women, and young people from all walks of life, including sex workers, people living with HIV, refugees, and survivors of gender-based violence. Seven out of 10 of them are poor and marginalised.
She says: “I feel motivated when I see what the organisation is doing to contribute towards humanity and I’m really happy I got to be part of that change.”