Women in the front lines
Every year, the United Nations observes World Humanitarian Day (WHD) on Aug. 19 “to pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, and to rally support for people affected by crises around the world.”
True, most of them are unknown to the majority. They are too often nameless and faceless. And yet without humanitarian workers, the world would be a much more miserable place than it already is. They provide not just rescue and relief and other emergency services in the face of disaster and violence, but more importantly, they also stick around for the long-term, looking out for the health, nutritional, educational and even emotional welfare of people and families under their care, especially children.
This year, the focus of WHD are women. The women who are, in the words of organizers, “unsung heroes who have long been working on the front lines in their own communities in some of the most difficult terrains.”
The Philippines is no stranger to disaster and violence. In recent years, the country has had to withstand not just natural calamities like drought, typhoons and earthquakes, but also bombings and armed encounters and a major disaster like the Marawi siege.
Which is why Unicef Philippines is training the spotlight on two women humanitarian workers who risk their lives, health and security to venture out to the battle-scarred streets of Marawi and the scenes of devastation in typhoon-hit areas to respond to the needs of communities.
One of them is Kristine Angeli Gimongala, who works with Unicef partner Health Organization for Mindanao. She says she “cannot forget the time” when, conducting a basic health skills training, she and her companions were confronted by armed men “who came into the community and pointed an M-16 rifle at me.” Fortunately, she kept calm and invited the armed men to sit in on the training “so they would know that this was for the benefit of their community.” The interlopers allowed her team to continue their training.
Living with and assisting evacuees from Marawi, Kristine Angeli worked with mothers to ensure “that children receive proper nutrition from the time they are conceived to their growing-up years.”
“A humanitarian worker needs to be resourceful and solution-oriented,” Kristine Angeli stresses. She recalls Ifa, whose family was displaced as a result of the Marawi conflict, who was severely malnourished and depended on breast milk from one of the mother volunteers. With a local mothers’ group, the Philippine General Hospital and the Air Force, they were able to supply Ifa with breast milk donated by mothers in Manila. “Now she is a healthy and happy baby. This is what makes my work worthwhile,” she says.
As a child protection officer for Unicef, Rohannie Baraguir-Datumanong has to ensure that “children are protected from any form of abuse, exploitation and violence, to feel safe in their environment, that they are able to play and express what they feel, whether it be in conflict or disaster scenarios.”
As a woman and mother, says Rohannie, “I feel affected when I see children separated from their families. Sometimes, when I see children caught in the crossfire or take part in the hostilities themselves, I think of how they have been robbed of their childhood. I think of them as my own children.”
Rewards come Rohannie’s way, she says, “when I come across people who I used to train as our volunteers running the child-friendly spaces. The young people I used to teach are now humanitarians in their own right. It fills my heart with so much happiness when I meet them in the field. This is the reward of many sleepless nights working and being away from my own family.”
But she considers her “most rewarding experience” that time during Typhoon “Sendong” in 2011 when she was able to help a boy named Junie to find his family, from whom he had been separated. While they were looking for his parents, Junie was looked after by Rohannie and her co-workers until he was eventually reunited with his family.
“Guidelines and policies can be learned,” reflects Rohannie, “but the passion to serve is what drives all of us to believe in ourselves and do our best.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.