Women building resilience in our own community – the community of expat aid workers.

This article is contributed by Amanda Scothern. Amanda Scothern works in organizational and community development and teachers yoga to aid workers and others.  She consults for The Garrison Institute’s Contemplative-Based Resilience Training program, offering resilience training for aid workers in May in West Cork, Ireland.


Last month, following on from an article published as part of the DevEx month-long focus on women in aid and development, The Garrison Institute @TransformTrauma hosted a Tweet Chat on women and resilience with humanitarian and human rights professionals from around the world.

The #She Builds Tweet Chat focused on how women – as part of the community of humanitarian aid workers – are playing an important role in the movement to build resilience among aid workers.

Zehra has blogged in this forum about her own experience of this when she herself took an “unintended”break from humanitarian work and found herself connecting with other women who, like her, were beginning to focus their energies toward improving aid worker psycho-social health.

The chat discussed possible reasons why women seem to be leading in this area, what was understood by resilience, and what the components of resilience are.

Participants noted that kindness and compassion, connecting with others, “knowing one’s limits” and self-awareness were all behaviours or ways of thinking that closely correlated with resilience.  Some suggested that perhaps women are more “educated for” kindness and compassion, and likely to connect with others more, compared with men.  On the other hand, knowing one’s limits is an area that recent research suggests aid workers are likely to be weaker in.  Barb Wigley, a researcher into organisational and personal aspects of aid worker psycho-social health notes that “… a reaction against the potential for weakness in the self may be found more often in humanitarian aid…” (Wigley in Bowie, Fisher et al. eds., p148)

While having a sense of purpose is widely understood to be a key element of resilience, @ImogenWall made the point that sometimes a driving sense of purpose may be what blinds us to the danger signs and pushes us into burnout.  Maybe the lesson here is that a sense of purpose has to be balanced with self-awareness and knowing one’s limits.

These struck me as two elements that need to go together: first, being self-aware enough to notice when our behaviour or thoughts are getting into the danger zone, and second, having a sense of when we’re reaching our limits, and where the fuzzy line is between being temporarily stressed and chronically stressed.  A practical post on this topic appeared on the WhyDev blog as part of their Mental Health Week series last year.

Self-awareness becomes more important once we recognize that aid workers’ sense of purpose may not always be a constant.  Zehra in her post described an experience that will resonate with others. She recognised that something was wrong, wasn’t working, and acted on this awareness even without having a clear plan.  In this case awareness was the critical first step, and led to a revised sense of purpose.

But we don’t always manage to change direction in time, even when we know something is wrong.  Chat participants agreed that ‘crumbling under adversity’ is not the opposite of resilience.  Rather, crumbling may well be “an appropriate response to horror and [allow] us to process and recover” – part of the process of developing resilience.  Resilience in this context might be best defined not only as “recovery,” but as “recovery + growth.”

Women as a group may have an advantage in that for cultural reasons the behaviours and mindsets that correlate with resilience may be more accessible to women than to men.  Examples cited in the chat included practice of compassion and kindness, reaching out to others rather than withdrawing as a response to stress, and engaging in mind-body practices that enhance self-awareness like yoga and meditation.

While such assertions have to be made with care to avoid gender stereotypes, I do think the large numbers of women in the humanitarian aid sector and their increasing representation in leadership roles may be important factors in building a more resilient humanitarian workforce.  As the DevEx article concluded:

“Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions. But learning to identify and value the qualities that go into resilience may also help gain greater recognition of the qualities women bring to emergency response and for their contributions and leadership in building resilience in their communities.”

What do you think?  Do you believe women can or do play a leading role in promoting or enabling more resilient culture and practice in the aid sector?


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3 Responses to Women building resilience in our own community – the community of expat aid workers.

  1. “To affirm, value, and validate yourself—to love yourself—amidst this daily onslaught of disparaging messages is not only political but also radical. It is radical because you’re not supposed to survive. It is radical because you’re not supposed to exceed the boundaries and limitations that society has set for you. It is radical because you’re not supposed to see self-love and self-care as worthwhile practices.” http://thefeministwire.com/2014/04/self-love-and-self-care/

  2. Pingback: The significance of (not) being an aid worker – and yoga as gardening | Marianne Elliott

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