Celebrating Women Humanitarians

Guest blog by Natasha Stott Despoja.


On 19th  August, World Humanitarian Day, events around the world paid tribute to the women who serve on the frontline of humanitarian responses to disasters. They are often the first to respond and the last to leave, and yet their voices and rights are often ignored. In Sydney, ActionAid Australia heard from women from Vanuatu and Fiji who are part of the Shifting the Power Coalition that promotes Pacific women’s leadership in humanitarian action.

World Humanitarian Day is held every year on 19 August: it is a day 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. This year, World Humanitarian Day shed light on women humanitarians, honouring the unsung heroes of humanitarian responses and the work of women in crises around the world.

Women make up a large number of those who risk their own lives to save others. They are often the first to respond and the last to leave. Today, women humanitarians are needed as much as ever. They have a fundamental right to participate in decisions affecting their lives, including humanitarian response. World leaders as well as non-state actors must ensure that the voices of women humanitarians are heard, and they are also guaranteed the protection afforded to them under international law.

On Monday 19th August, events were held around the world dedicated to women humanitarians who have long been working on the frontlines in their communities and their countries, in some of the most difficult terrains on the planet. From the war-wounded in Afghanistan, to the food insecure in Sahel, to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods in places such as Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. We saluted the efforts of women humanitarians from all over the world, who rally when there is need.

Members of the Arise Leadership Circle, Nelley Caleb and Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls at ActionAid Australia's World Humanitarian Day Event, 2019.

Members of the Arise Leadership Circle, Nelley Caleb and Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls at ActionAid Australia’s World Humanitarian Day Event, 2019.

In honour of women humanitarians in our region, ActionAid Australia held an event in Sydney celebrating the women who have risen to the challenge of providing leadership in humanitarian crises. ActionAid is a women’s rights organisation and part of a global federation, working in more than 45 countries around the world to achieve gender equality, social justice and poverty eradication. At the core of ActionAid Australia’s approach to humanitarian response is women’s leadership, which they pioneered more than a decade ago in Bangladesh. This approach recognises that conflict and disasters impact women disproportionately. Yet there is the potential to shift the power in times of crises, putting women’s leadership at the centre. I have been fortunate to have seen this work first-hand, including in post-cyclone Vanuatu, in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, and in remote parts of Bangladesh.

Since 2016, ActionAid has worked with women-led organisations in the Pacific to establish the Shifting the Power Coalition that promote diverse Pacific women’s leadership in humanitarian action. On World Humanitarian Day, we had an opportunity to hear from two of the amazing leaders involved in the Coalition: Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls from Fiji, who has used communications platforms to amplify women’s voices in times of crisis, and Nellie Caleb from Vanuatu, who is a leading voice for women with disabilities in the region.

Their message is clear – nothing about us, without us!  Sharon and Nellie demonstrate that women’s leadership is innovative, collaborative and inclusive, and it ensures the needs of diverse women in humanitarian crises are prioritised. Nellie also powerfully highlights that without more inclusive leadership, women are being left behind.  Her story of a pregnant mother with six children and a hearing impairment who failed to hear the early warning broadcast and died in the cyclone reminds us that without urgent action, lives are at stake.

Around the world, women like Sharon and Nelly are providing incredible leadership in the face of adversity. With little recognition and financial resources, but with enormous resilience and courage, they are coming together to challenge an unjust system that has often excluded them from decision making and as a result has failed to sufficiently meet their needs in crisis.

This year, ActionAid Australia celebrated its 10th Birthday – a decade of putting women’s rights front and centre, and advocating for climate justice, economic justice, and women’s rights in emergencies. Over the next 5 years, ActionAid is working to scale up its efforts to support women leading crisis response through the ARISE Fund. I am proud to be part of this effort to mobilise resources to support one million women in 10 countries to better prepare, to rapidly respond and to protect their rights in emergencies. Because if we are to create change at a scale and pace that keeps up with the growing frequency and impact of disasters, then we need to do more.

During conflict and disaster, women are on the frontline of humanitarian response: evacuating and caring for children, the injured and the elderly, and ensuring their families have enough food. The burden of unpaid care work increases, especially when there is limited access to basic services such as water and hospitals.

Yet women have a unique ability to rebuild social networks and revive economies. I have seen firsthand that when women are effectively resourced to prepare for, respond to and take leadership when emergencies happen:

  • More lives are saved;
  • Communities are better prepared for crises;
  • Women are girls are better protected from violence;
  • A woman’s position in society is transformed, and they are respected as capable leaders.

I am incredibly proud to be associated with ActionAid Australia: a feminist organisation that puts the rights of women central to its work and celebrates women humanitarians, the unsung heroes of humanitarian response, every day.


Natasha Stott Despoja AO is the founding Chairperson of Our Watch (the Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children). She has been Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls which involved 45 country visits between December 2013 and 2016 to promote women’s economic empowerment, women’s leadership and reduce violence against women and girls. She is also a founding member of the ActionAid Arise Fund Leadership Circle. She is a former Senator for South Australia (1995-2008) and former Leader of the Australian Democrats. 

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