How I Became A… Humanitarian Aid Worker

What's it really like being a young, female humanitarian aid worker?

How I Became A... Humanitarian Aid Worker

by Chemmie Squier |

Madeleine Walder, 27, is a humanitarian aid worker. She is currently working as a Communication and Communities Programme Manager in Erbil, Iraq.

I was previously a Gender Based Violence Project Manager in South Sudan

'Gender based violence refers to the physical, emotional, psychological, social recognise violence that happens to somebody based on their gender. It’s about power and abusing power to keep one gender down.

'It can be against men as well but it’s most commonly perpetrated against women. Obviously because their gender is in the position of less power in the countries that I’m working in.

'In South Sudan it was mostly domestic violence, psychological or emotional abuse and early marriage, so marriage of underage people (under 18) and forced marriage.

'People who have had violence done to them, we call them survivors just to focus on the fact that they’ve survived something and they have strength to carry on – as oppose to victims which we see as a negative terminology.'

We offer support to survivors in various ways

'We have volunteers who are from the community who we train and seek out these survivors through various ways and tell those people that there are different options open to them.

'We offer mediation, family mediation with the partner if there was domestic violence going on, psychological counselling, help them to pursue legal action or get a divorce.

'Sometimes it’s material or economic support or just a space for them to come and speak with other women; a safe space where they don’t feel alone. In extreme cases, if it was repeated incidents of violence, we’d provide them with safe accommodation.

'As well as that, we might refer them to different service providers like medical charities, if for example they need emergency contraception if they had been raped.

'A lot of the job is awareness raising. So you do information campaigns about specific issues such as why early marriage is harmful and ways in which we can work together to prevent early marriage.'

My new role kind of marries my previous jobs


'As the Communication and Communities Programme Manager I work across lots of different refugee camps and also refugees in the host community passing relevant information to them about specific issues usually relating to violence. We’re doing some again on early marriage and organ harvesting, as there are some instances of people being coerced into selling their organs.

'We’re also setting up systems that allow the refugees to give us feedback, because we want as humanitarians, to be more accountable to the people we work for. So we are giving them ways they can raise complaints or give suggestions, or even report harassment or malpractice. Facilitating a communication flow between them and us, so it’s more of an engagement as opposed to a top-down intervention.'

I didn’t take a conventional route

'I studied Language and Literature at the University of Edinburgh, particularly poetry so really far off what I do now. I always liked to travel so during my summers at university I would go out to different places in Africa and train people in first aid in schools and community centres. That’s how I kick-started this idea that maybe I would want to do that professionally.

'At the end of university I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do so I applied for various masters, some of them in literature some of them in development, humanitarian work and I ended up getting funding for a humanitarian aid masters – I got a scholarship for it, which I think was based on my volunteering.

'I did a masters called the NOHA masters in Humanitarian Action which is a year and a half long, and it takes place across six different universities in Europe.'

Honestly, it’s quite difficult to get into the sector

'Having a masters is a prerequisite; unless you’re working for a very very small community based NGO (non-government organisation) nearly all of them ask you for a masters now and then you would need to do at least one internship unfortunately – I guess it’s the same in most industries across the board.

'I had a couple of internships. I went to Italy because I’d always fancied going, and I did an internship for UN HCR which is their High Commission for Refugees in Rome. I did another one for the UN and eventually I got my first job after a long time.

'Unfortunately the UN don’t pay their interns. Some people do get paid internships –they do exist – but they’re difficult to get especially now that there are more and more people in this particular kind of work.'

You could do whichever degree you want and then do a masters to specialise

'I mean, I had a degree in literature so it’s not relevant at all. There’s a website you can check, it’s called and that’s the portal for all humanitarian jobs and if you look at the internships, you’ll see what they’re asking for.'

Get a lot of volunteering experience

'If you want to try for a masters scholarship your best bet is to have a lot of volunteering experience and prove that you’re dedicated to that. If you have voluntary experience you’re also more likely to get internships as well.'

There’s a huge variety of jobs in the humanitarian sector

'You could be a person out on the field working in a refugee camp all day in the mud tramping around, or you could be behind a desk. And equally the living conditions could be really nice if you live in Geneva or Nairobi or they could be horrible if you live in the South Sudan with rats and no running water, with pit latrine toilets.

'Personally I like to be out in the rural areas as I like to work with the beneficiaries, which is definitely my favourite part of the job. Paradoxically it’s difficult in the sense that I don’t have the language. In South Sudan there are so many different languages, I wouldn’t speak the tribal languages so I’d have to work through a translator. So while it’s really rewarding it’s frustrating, because you want to support these people but you don’t actually have the necessary skills to deal with them directly and you always have to take a backseat. It’s good in a way as you have to employ local people, which is obviously empowering for the community to be giving work to the local community and everything.'

I’ve seen a lot of difficult things

'The most important thing is to recognise your own limits. I think many workers don’t do that they just push and push themselves and then they burn out. There was a point where I stayed on working for too long after a particularly difficult time, and I should have left but I didn’t and then I became sort of depressed and unable to concentrate. Now I can recognise the symptoms. Just being able to say to your supervisor that you need to take a break, and that’s ok. Obviously you shouldn’t help anyone if you’re not in a good mental state.'

To work in a foreign country you need to be very resilient

'You may have very difficult living conditions, you’re going to be working in a culture that’s extremely different and can make you feel uncomfortable. I’m in the Middle-East now and it’s a very male dominated environment and you need to be able to cope with that. You need to be open-minded, and handle unusual situations being thrown at you and keep calm.

'You need to be able to manage stress. If you get stressed easily or you’re a person who can’t stand things being late or meetings being cancelled at the last minute, it’s really not the job for you because it’s so operationally difficult. To get even the most simple things done can be really challenging.

'It’s important to be open minded as you’re dealing with very different cultures. Working in gender based violence, I can’t bring my own western perceptions of what it means to be a woman and women’s rights into a dialogue with male leaders. It just won’t work. You need to be able to think about things from their perspective, and be culturally relative.'

There are plenty of women in top level managerial positions

'It’s one of those sectors that works so directly in human and women’s rights it’s quite an open-minded sector, so it doesn’t have that glass ceiling that you might find in the city or in publishing. If you’re good at your job as a woman there’s no real barriers to doing well and being very successful, and that’s one of the best things of being an aid worker, in my experience. You can get promoted very quickly being in the field, because if you’re there in the country and you have relevant experience, and they’re looking for someone, it’s likely they’ll give the position to somebody who’s there.'

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Follow Chemmie on Twitter @chemsquier

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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