Are you Wo(man) enough?

I’m blogging on and co managing the Women in Aid site with co founder Fi Davidson, trying to blog on my own nutrition website, facebooking, aidsourcing, tweeting, trying to keep up with LinkedIn discussions, trying to get my health coaching biz off the ground, am keeping up with my clients, still doing some humanitarian work, job hunting and and and….it all seems like an endless list.

When is enough, enough?

This is obviously not just a ‘woman’ issue but somehow, I feel a lot more comfortable talking to other women about it.  Somehow, I feel like they will get what I am feeling with this feeling that I am falling behind somehow.  And from conversations with my female friends, yep, they get it.  Loud and clear.  The men I talk to about this (two so far), have a stock response of: stop doing it.  That answer doesn’t sit right with me.

I can’t STOP being me.

What I can do however is decide for myself when enough is actually…enough.

I talk to my coaching clients about this all the time and need to take a page from my own book as what I say to them and coach them on is working for them.  My advice to my clients:  the important part is defining what enough is.

I am seeing this issue of when enough is enough more and more which is great (second link is amazing–Jen Louden is queen on helping you find your satisfaction).  It’s not about knowing what the right thing to do is—everyone knows what that is–it’s about the practical steps you will take to make sure you implement what you know is the right thing to do.

So, here I am taking a deep breath and putting it out in the universe and sharing this with all of you to keep myself accountable, but also to let you know you aren’t alone in feeling this feeling.  We ARE super women and we don’t need to be running on all cylinders and then some to feel like we are achieving something.

Deciding what is enough means that you won’t walk around feeling like you haven’t accomplished something.  It does NOT mean that you are not ambitious or that you can’t lean in etc.  It just means that you are clear on what YOU want and what will make YOU happy.  If you aren’t clear on these things it means you will have a hard time figuring out what enough actually is for you.

My favourite read on this topic is from Elizabeth Lesser of the Omega Institute.  A small excerpt from an article of hers:

The other day, I was having lunch at work with a few friends. Two were in their 30s with young children, demanding jobs and seemingly impossible schedules. One was single, childless and in her 40s. And I’m in my 50s with an eclectic work and family life that involves a blend of 9-to-5, travel and chunks of time spent in the solitary netherworld of writing.

“I have a question,” I said to my colleagues. “When I say, ‘How much is enough?’ what comes to mind?”

“Enough of what?” one of my younger friends asked.

“Enough of anything. What’s enough success? Enough good deeds? Enough parenting? Enough creativity? Enough sex? Enough apps? Enough emails, tweets, texts? Vacations, clothes, shoes? In a world of unlimited possibilities, how do you know when to stop? How much is enough? Do you know what I mean?”

Everyone nodded vigorously. Regardless of age or lifestyle or to-do lists, we all got the point. A sigh arose from our lunch table. If it weren’t for the plates of food, I think we would have cradled our heads in our arms and taken a long nap. It seems as if humankind made a group decision just a few years ago to pick up our collective pace. You know those long, moving walkways in airports? Where you step on and suddenly you and everyone else are going a little faster? That’s what things feel like to me these days—like we jumped on the fast track and now we can’t get off.

But we can, actually.

We can break out of our group trance; we can turn ourselves around, walk against the current and step off the moving platform—at least long enough to ask some important questions. I call them the 5 W’s: the What, the Where, the Why, the Who and the When.

I love that.  The 5W’s.  A good simple way to contextualize what is actually important to me and KNOW that it is.  You can read through the article for more guidance on how to answer the questions but the basics are below:

What matters most?

Where is the hidden cost?

Why am I doing it?

Who am I doing it for?

When do I stop striving and start living?

I invite you all to explore your 5W’s.  And please DO share in the comments below.  If you have other ways to add to techniques to find satisfaction, it would be great to hear about it.  I think it’s very important crucial to feel satisfied with our lives and know why we are doing the things that we are doing.  Other sectors will undoubtedly have this as well, but I feel a certain pressure in the alpha aid world for sure on needing to reach higher and higher (but for what?)….

So, when is enough enough for you?

Posted in career, family, life/ work balance | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Post Traumatic Triumph

Women in Aid has a fantastic new guest contribution from Bharati Acharya. Bharati discusses the importance of engaging with and supporting individuals who have post traumatic stress. It highlights that connecting people with others that have similar stories can be key to their healing. After reading this post you might want to revisit a previous post by Claire Higgins  which discusses her own experiences of “Making Sense of Violence”.


According to the United Nations, one out of three women on the planet will be beaten or raped some time in her life. That means over one billion women will experience some type of gender-based violence. Given these staggering numbers, it is very likely that those working in the developing world will encounter women who have endured trauma or may experience trauma themselves.

As a mental health clinician specializing in working with women, I work with clients who carry the burden of being labeled with generic terms like “chemically dependent” “addicted” and “substance abuser.” In the world of mental health, these terms are intended to guide providers toward effective clinical interventions; medical and psycho-social strategies to treat and perhaps even eradicate life-constricting symptoms associated with long-term drug and alcohol use.

Unfortunately these diagnostic terms often render invisible some of the most salient lived experiences of our clients—the experiences of violence, rape and incest that have directly and quite profoundly contributed to the their use of alcohol and drugs in the first place.  Having lived through these myriad manifestations of violence and violation, many of these women turn to substances in a desperate attempt to assuage the distress of post trauma effects.

Peeling back the layers of addiction to address the core experiences of violence in these women’s lives is a new approach in the field of addiction and mental health. This “trauma informed” philosophy suggests that the comprehensive chemical/ mental health treatment can only occur in a context that acknowledges the all too common reality of violence in women’s lives.

While the trauma informed philosophy can be viewed as a positive step toward offering women a more comprehensive approach to treatment, it also presents dilemmas for clinicians who strive to address violence in women’s lives in a manner that does not “ re- traumatize” them. Thus, traversing the world of trauma therapy involves understanding that, for some individuals, deeper trauma work can actually make things worse for our clients if this work is done prematurely and without a firm emotional foundation in place. Without such a foundation, some clients can experience destabilizing emotional reactions, from unmanageable anxiety to suicidal despair.

While the standard trauma informed medical and psychosocial interventions do, to some degree, contribute to the emotional foundation necessary for deeper trauma work through “symptom management” and the development of “coping skills,” I have found there is still something sorely missing from these traditional approaches. This missing piece involves the mysterious, almost existential endeavor of restoring (or in some cases creating) with our clients the experience of the whole and empowered self that is often squelched, shattered or forgotten in the face of trauma.

This restoration of the whole and empowered self is much more than demurely telling the women we work with they will get better. Rather, this endeavor requires introducing them to vibrant examples of other women who have not only endured violence but who have also risen out of the most heinous violations to create lives that are rewarding, joy filled and connected. The vivid knowledge that this type of “post traumatic growth” is an attainable experience has been critical to the healing of so many women I have worked with.

The importance of attending to the “double story” of both pain and triumph when working with women was very clearly affirmed for me a few years ago, as I conducted a 3 day leadership workshop in Serbia, for women journalists who had lived through years of conflict in the Balkans. In an attempt to launch a discussion on leadership and post traumatic growth, I decided to hold a viewing of the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” about the women-led movement in Liberia that eventually brought an end to that country’s brutal and bloody civil war. Having viewed the documentary before, I knew the potent and uplifting themes of the women’s peaceful protests were balanced by the sobering accounts of rape and other forms of violence some of these women endured during the war. Knowing that some of these accounts of violence were hauntingly similar to what the Serbian participants had gone through during the Balkan conflicts. I decided to ask my interpreter Sylvia to preview it, and to tell me honestly if it would be too much for our participants.

As the film opened with footage of people fleeing their homes, and villages as young soldiers brandished guns, human skulls, and disturbingly eerie smiles Sylvia began to gentle rock her body back and forth. She pulled out a tissue as the sounds of battle filled the room, and cried softly, whispering “Milosevic, Milosevic…Taylor was like Milosevic.”

The film continued. Sylvia remained transfixed on the screen, as the stories of Liberian women taking to the streets with songs, prayers, and dances in an attempt to persuade Charles Taylor to enter into peace talks emerged. Sylvia whispers became louder when she said, “We did that…we beat pots and pans, we made noise against him. We did that!”

Finally, at the end of the film, Sylvia sat, tearful, moved, and visibly exhausted from witnessing a traumatic journey that was clearly so close to her own.

I wondered to myself whether showing it to workshop participants would be too overwhelming. As we discussed my hesitation in showing a film that might “re-traumatize,” we created a plan to: forewarn participants about the difficult parts, remind them they can opt out of viewing, and suggest they stay for the discussion/ debriefing after in order to gain support.

As workshop participants listened intently to Sylvia’s experience of the documentary, they sat quietly. After she acknowledged both the power and the pain of the film, I asked if anyone would like to opt out of the viewing.

There was a brief silence, followed by one participant saying “Bharati, if these Liberian women lived through all of that, we can certainly hear their story.”

Experiences like these inform my work even today. Whether I am delivering trauma informed treatment in the United States, or internationally, I interweave stories of women’s triumph over trauma, worldwide, along with my standard clinical interventions. As these clients hear of Tina Turner, Somaly Mam, Oprah Winfrey, Rigoberta Menchu and others, often they listen spellbound, and at times, these stories offer them a vision of what is possible for their own lives, and — just as Sylvia recognized her own acts of resistance when watching the Liberian women — help them more richly acknowledge the often neglected aspects of their own survival.

“You know that post traumatic growth you were talking about the other day in group…. I think I have that.”- Woman at a U.S. treatment center

When working with women in either developing or developed nations, one will inevitably encounter individuals who have experienced violence. Connecting these women to the lives of others who have endured and prevailed over trauma must be an essential part of their healing process.

Bharati Acharya, M.A., LPCC, International Diplomat in Narrative Therapy is based in Minneapolis, MN.  She has consulted and conducted trainings on gender-related psychosocial and women’s leadership projects.  She can be contacted at,

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Nine Top Tips For an Impactful Cover Letter

I have been involved in the shortlisting and recruitment of numerous staff in to both humanitarian and development positions. I have reviewed an incredible number of job applications. One thing that has really hit me is that not many applications I have reviewed have really impressed me. This post forms part of the career series being published on Women in Aid. If you want to contribute a post to this series please get in contact with us by emailing info(at)

Below are some of my top tips based on my own experience. I welcome comments from others on how they have approached writing cover letters and job applications.

1.       Firstly, DO write a cover letter if it is asked for. An amazing number of people who have applied for jobs I have recruited to have simply not done this. I think some people think that a simple email is enough. It is not. Write a cover letter and write it well. Read the tips below.

2.       Lean in” and sell yourself with a touch of bravado. Write confidently about what you have done. Delete any “we” sentences (e.g. we won a proposal for $2million). The recruiters want to know what you as an individual have brought to previous positions and what you will bring to the position you have applied for if successful.

3.       Clearly write why you want the job and why NOW is the right time for you to do it. Recruiters want you to have thought through why the position you are applying for is a good fit for your current skill level, your experience to date and your future plans. They want to know the same for the organisation you are applying for. Write this clearly within an opening paragraph to the cover letter.

4.       Explain how you meet the person specification (as listed on the job advert) one by one and with examples. The simplest way of doing this is by inserting a table in to the cover letter, with one column showing the person specification listed by the employer and a second column which is information of how you meet the criteria (see example below). You can also answer each criterion with paragraphs. If you are doing this make sure to clearly signpost or highlight how you are meeting each criterion (e.g. by putting their words in bold). This will make it easy for recruiters to shortlist you.

Person Specification Evidence of My Experience
3 years of senior management experience. As you can see from my attached CV I have worked as a senior manager for the following organisations: x, y and z, for a total of 6 years. My senior management experience is especially relevant for this job as much of my experience has been within the humanitarian sector and with similar sized organisations.
Extensive experience of budget development. For the last ** years the roles I have been employed in have involved budget development and management. I have developed budgets both at the organizational level and for specific donor funded projects.

5.       State the obvious. You may be writing your application in English, have been born in America and have a degree from an Australian University, but if the person specification asks for fluency in English be sure to write this. It may seem a little silly, but it is so important to not make recruiters guess or assume anything. Many of the modern shortlisting techniques prevent or limit the degree to which people are allowed to assume, so make sure you write the obvious!

 6.       Put all information in to the language of the organisation you are applying for. All organisations talk about things in quite different ways. Be sure to look through the organisations website and to work out how they talk about things. Do they talk about fundraising or business development? Do they talk about programme management or portfolio management? Ensure that your experience on both your CV and cover letter is tailored to the organisation.

 7.       Do not include a photograph. There is simply no need to include a photograph (or your age, or marital status, or your religion or any other personal details). All of these things only open you up to potential scrutiny that is not appropriate when applying for a job. This information is not relevant so don’t include it.

 8.       Do list which countries you have worked in, but be sure to highlight the country experience you have that is RELEVANT to the post you have applied for. A long list of countries is great, but if you’re applying for a job in Laos and have never worked in South East Asia before, you may want to describe why you think you’ll be able to adapt to this new culture. You’ll also definitely want to research and prepare for a question on the Laos culture for your interview.

 9.       Keep it concise. I don’t believe in “one page” limits or anything like that, as I believe that answering the criteria is the most important thing. However, it is important to write concisely and in punchy sentences. Write the cover letter and then ask someone to review it and specify that you want help to cut down sentences. Don’t cut substance just to fit it on to one page though!

And when you do get the job you might want to re-read last weeks post on negotiation!

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Yep, we all cringe when thinking about it.  I don’t know many women who feel comfortable with this and if statistics are to be believed, men have much less of an issue negotiating a better salary, benefits, raises–you name it.

Linda Babcock, a professor at Carnegie Mellon has done research and written books about this.  According to the stats she gathered:

  • In surveys, 2.5 times more women than men said they feel “a great deal of apprehension” about negotiating.
  • Men initiate negotiations about four times as often as women.
  • When asked to pick metaphors for the process of negotiating, men picked “winning a ballgame” and a “wrestling match,” while women picked “going to the dentist.”
  • Women are more pessimistic about the how much is available when they do negotiate and so they typically ask for and get less when they do negotiate—on average, 30 percent less than men.
  • 20 percent of adult women (22 million people) say they never negotiate at all, even though they often recognize negotiation as appropriate and even necessary.

Here is WHY this is a problem (from the same source):

  • By not negotiating a first salary, an individual stands to lose more than $500,000 by age 60—and men are more than four times as likely as women to negotiate a first salary.
  • In one study, eight times as many men as women graduating with master’s degrees from Carnegie Mellon negotiated their salaries. The men who negotiated were able to increase their starting salaries by an average of 7.4 percent, or about $4,000. In the same study, men’s starting salaries were about $4,000 higher than the women’s on average, suggesting that the gender gap between men and women might have been closed if more of the women had negotiated their starting salaries.
  • Another study calculated that women who consistently negotiate their salary increases earn at least $1 million more during their careers than women who don’t.

There’s the stats and the impact of our not negotiating.  It’s scary.  By not negotiating you stand to lose $1 million over a lifetime of working.  WTF?!

I’m a strong woman and I only started negotiating late in my humanitarian career (read one year ago).  I think back now and can’t imagine why I didn’t just go back and at the very least even ask:  Is there room for negotiation? It didn’t even cross my mind before till I started hearing about other women who would negotiate.  Two of my friends negotiated and were aghast that I wasn’t.  And it is expected that you will.  If not for salary, then for benefits.

I’ve compiled some videos and sources to help other women out there and below are “top tips” from the videos and from my own experiences.  Also, a GREAT read on how to ask for a raise can be found here. And I would read this piece for more great advice on negotiating a salary in the non profit sector.  And for those that like scientific articles, read this.

This first video is an HR lady talking about how to negotiate salary:

This second video is a bit smarmy for my taste but he’s got some great tips.

And here is a video interview of Linda Babcock herself discussing the findings from her research:

And here are the WiA top tips.  Please do add to these in the comments below as this is far from an exhaustive list.

Top Tip One:  NEGOTIATE. You just need to be comfortable doing this.  And it is expected that you will and it can’t hurt to ask.  Get your head around this and feel the fear but do it anyway.  The factor that people point to all the time to explain the gap between men and women in this matter is very simple:  Women Don’t Ask.  Do it–start asking.

Top Tip Two:  Know your own value (based on a market assessment).  You must do your homework and know not only what you are worth, but what the organization will pay and how it compares to what other organizations are paying.  This is a bit hard in our sector as there is such a range but one way to do this is  ask others for a range of what they get paid for a similar job to the one you are applying for.

Top Tip Three:  Never ever never never ever give a number yourself to start with.  The last time I negotiated though I was asked repeatedly for a number, I never actually gave one.  I very honestly said, I have no idea what people in the US make for these jobs and so, I was told what the range was and I said I would like to be in the higher part of the range and left it at that. Do ask for a range and though I’ve had the experience where HR didn’t give me a range (that’s really weird) they should come back with at least a range.  This hiring agency came back with a number but here’s where I made a mistake…

Top Tip Four:  Have a number in mind.  Figure out what your needs are and what you will work for.  I didn’t have a number and I was so enjoying not giving a number that I ended up losing out on probably 2-3K more a year.  I figured that out after I joined but I hadn’t really done my market research either and had no idea what people in the non profit sector in the US were making and had nothing to base my number on.  The general rule of thumb on this is to aim higher than your number as there is compromise and the hiring agency (if they really want you) will come back and meet you mid way.  So, if you are being offered $50,000 but you want $55,000, $say 60,000.  Simple math.

Top Tip Five: Be ready to walk away.  That’s a hard one since we all want jobs but down the line, you will get seriously annoyed at not being paid enough for your worth.  This will affect your work performance and it’s not something you want to think about while working.  You want to be focused on doing your best.  You need to be OK with walking away.

Top Tip Six: Negotiation starts after an offer has been made.  This is very true for salary requirements.  I’m on the fence if this is the same if you have other things you are negotiating such as working flexible hours, or from home part of the time or for an accompanied post etc.  That is a separate post coming later but for salary, my experience has shown that your strongest position is to get an offer, get a number from them and then go back and ask for more.

Top Tip Seven:  It’s not just about the money.  It can be about benefits as well.  A friend of mine negotiated better leave for himself.  Coming from a European background, American leave is a sad state of affairs and they knew this and he knew this and asked for that instead of a higher salary which he knew they would not be able to give him (he was going to be their Chief Financial Officer).  At the end of the day, you want to work in an organization that you feel recognizes your value and will work with you to find you the best deal for your own circumstances.

Top Tip Eight: Take your time.  If they’ve offered you a job, they want you.  Don’t let anyone rush you into making a decision or negotiating what you want and need.  We often feel rushed to accept as we are so grateful to be given a job but DO take your time.  Think about it and weigh the pros and cons.

Top Tip Nine: Get it in writing.  A rookie mistake I’ve made.  How many times do you hear it…get it in writing.  I took a job on the understanding that I would be able to travel and work remotely once a month to see my partner and I trusted that my manager would make it happen as this was discussed with him before I took the job and it was a make or break deal for me.  A week into the job, he was like, ummm, so we should talk about it.  6 months down the line, I left the job because I had nothing in writing and not being with my partner was not an option. It was really sad since me and the org really fit with each other and loved each other but there you go. Lesson learned–get it in writing IN your contract or some other legal binding document.

Top Tip Ten:  Learn from others and share with others.  We want to hear your experiences and please add to the top tips list.  There is so much out there and it would be good to hear from others on what they’ve experienced and how they negotiate negotiating!

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Two TedX talks to watch

I would recommend that everyone watches the following two TedX talks.

The first is a talk by Jackson Katz on feminism. It discusses the need for men to speak up and support feminism.

The second is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Her talk discusses her observations of women in the workplace and how women sometimes limit themselves through their own actions.

Any thoughts on these videos? What do men and women need to do to level the playing field? Any personal stories of when you have seen change?

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Kashmir earthquake, gender and security

Lucy Morris has written a post for the blog this week. It is an important insight in to a time when reflecting on how the way in which policies and procedures were realized made a big difference to the impact that these have on staff members.

Lucy Morris has worked on humanitarian response and development programmes across Africa, Asia and CEE/CIS countries for the past 15 years. She has spent time working in DRC, Kenya, Senegal, Pakistan and the UK with UN/INGOs/national organisations, and her areas of expertise include: gender, children’s participation, child protection, partnership and faith-based work.


Imagine that there’s been a massive earthquake in northern Pakistan.  Imagine that it’s your job to ensure that help gets to where it’s most needed, and that you need to recruit new staff to deliver a large scale relief/rehabilitation programme.  Imagine that security starts to deteriorate, but people still need help, and it’s up to you to ensure the safety and security of your staff and project assets.  What would you do?

Security solutions are often presented in the form of ex-military security advisors, razor wire and radios.  Yet there’s a softer-side to security management too.  And in north western Pakistan, where women are not usually allowed to leave their villages unaccompanied let alone work for INGOs, for these brave and forward-thinking women and their families, seemingly small things like the wrong male/female staff seating arrangements within a vehicle, can have extremely serious consequences.

After the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, I spent 5 years travelling back and forth between the UK and an area formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan in my then role as Programme Officer for a Catholic INGO, working closely with our national counterpart’s earthquake response programme as ‘facilitating partner’. One of the most important things that I learnt during that time was the importance of ensuring that security arrangements were gender sensitive i.e. that they reflected the different vulnerabilities and needs of both men and women.

As a Christian organisation operating within a new and highly conservative Muslim area of Pakistan, security and cultural sensitivity were prioritised from day one, and initially there was one national male Security Focal Point.  However, security became an increasing concern in 2008 following the attacks against Plan’s nearby office in Mansehra, and later an international (male) security advisor joined on a short-term basis to help strengthen security systems.  Despite installing CCTV and varying the pick up times, our female staff still seemed jittery, and without them it was impossible to access big sections of the female population. Not only was the environment highly conservative to begin with, but risks for females working for NGOs increased as a result of military action that pushed extremist radicals into remote areas of NWFP, and tragically, the World Vision field office in Oghi Tesil was deliberately bombed by terrorist radicals (in 2010) killing 7 including 2 female staff.

Good female staff were like gold-dust, but they were not reassured by the new security measures, and there were urgent exchanges about how they would be perceived if they had to stay overnight somewhere unaccompanied for work.  In northern Pakistan, a woman travelling alone at night or not covering her body in the ‘traditional’ way would become a target for an attack, and instead of being supported, victims of such an attacks were themselves blamed.  As a result, the female staff’s primary concern was linked to reputational damage and loss of personal and associated family honour. As one ex-colleague put it “When women work with male staff they need protection even inside the office, because if they talk with male colleagues freely for more than 5 minutes without calling them ‘bhai’ or brother, other colleagues will think that they are having an affair.”  Yet these concerns and were not making it onto the agenda of management meetings or into security plans.

A simple way of addressing this was by introducing a designated female Security Focal point in addition to the male one, so that female staff would feel comfortable raising their concerns in a structured way, and these concerns could then taken up by management.  Sometimes these concerns related to overnight field visits and to the need for separate male/female accommodation, other times they related to drop offs for female staff after work, or the behaviour of male colleagues; but what was key was they felt able to voice them and that they could be addressed quickly and discreetly, meaning that female staff were protected from accusations of ‘improper behaviour.’ As an ex-colleague put it: “If a female staff member is comfortable within the office environment and with her colleagues, she will be confident doing field visits as well.”  All staff were trained on the security guidelines and how to report security issues by using a special reporting form, and female staff could give their completed forms to the female Security Focal point who then shared a summary during management meetings. This approach was easy to introduce, partly as a result of a supportive female Earthquake Response Coordinator and male Security Focal Point, but was initially overlooked.

What was also important was that this arrangement formed part of a wider gender policy and strategy for the earthquake response programme, to ensure that both the direct programme work but also the organisation’s own policies and culture took account of the differing needs of men and women.  The gender policy and strategy was developed by national consultants with input from staff, and all of the staff then received basic gender training (UNDP example available here), some of whom then formed part of a cross-organisational gender network which was established to monitor progress against the strategy.  (The Gender and Development network and  ELDIS are useful resources for more information about ‘gender-mainstreaming.’)

Although there was initially a lot of resistance to women working with NGOs in northern Pakistan, as more and more women joined and started to bring home regular salaries, local mind sets shifted, and many of the women themselves started to dream of going to University and of having a career. Benazir Bhutto defined empowerment as “the right to be independent; to be educated; to have choices in life…to have the opportunity to select a productive career; to own property; to participate in business; to flourish in the market place,” and she once said “I dream of a Pakistan in which women contribute to their full potential.”   In the often chaotic environment of the aid and development market place, what will you do to ensure that women can participate and flourish?

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Making Sense of Violence

This week we have a post by a fellow humanitarian health coach, Claire Higgins, on not just working with violence in a professional sense but also experiencing (and healing from it) on a personal level.  This is not a topic that gets discussed often and certainly not in such an open and honest manner.  On a professional level we can become numb by serving as witnesses to violence and not realize the consequences of this.  Intertwined with this, on a personal level it can profoundly affect us in ways that are often unknown to us till much later.  Claire’s story is an inspirational one of the turning points that lead us home.

Claire is a Humanitarian and Health Coach. She is also a Budokon Red Belt Sensei, Karate Black Belt, Women’s Yoga Teacher and Relax & Renew Trainer. She blogs about health, work and relationships, stress, trauma and resilience, war, violence and conflict, and the turning points that lead us home (


It’s a cool and peaceful evening. For once, everything seems calm both within and around me. We’ve just spent the past hour swimming and hanging out in the sauna together, much needed time to reconnect after months apart.

As we walk uphill towards my home on mission, we approach a checkpoint to our left. He tells me to cross the road with him but I don’t hear until it’s too late. As we part ways, I saunter past the 3 soldiers, who seem oblivious to our presence, and he walks the other way. We reunite on the other side and it is only then I realize what he said:

‘’Why didn’t you cross with me?!” he demands.

His face looks like thunder and I know what this means, I just don’t know where the next move will come from. I freeze for a moment and then suddenly, he swings the plastic bag of hardback books he had bought earlier that day into the back of my head with full force.

I stumble forwards in shock for a moment, then as I regain my senses give him hell. I know how to answer back, to shout and stand up to him. As a black belt martial artist, I usually know how to defend myself. It would take almost another two years for me to stand up for myself and leave.

The past four years have been a gradual process of healing for me, from the violence I was a part of growing up, the violence I witnessed in the field, and the violence I experienced in my 9-year marriage and relationship.

I don’t fit the typical stereotype of a ‘’violated’’ woman. Yes, I saw things I wish I hadn’t as a young girl. Yes, I was raped as a teenager. And yes, my ex-husband was emotionally, physically and mentally abusive towards me. But none of this looked like Hollywood drama, I never broke down, and most of it happened in very matter-of-fact ways that I quickly picked myself up from. Or so I thought.

What makes the story a little odd is how I was repeatedly drawn to situations of violence with such little awareness.  I started my humanitarian field work as an interpreter with the ICRC, translating in prisons, later working as a prison delegate. Like most ICRC staff, I dealt with the evidence of torture, death and other atrocities head on.

In between missions I specialized in violence during my Masters degree, then went on to work with other agencies like the IFRC, UN, smaller refugee organizations, and more recently, MSF. I moved from protection to prison reform, media and communications.

Personal and professional experience has taught me that health is really all we and our so-called ‘’beneficiaries’’ have. Without our mental, physical and emotional health intact, living becomes so much more complicated, draining and exhausting both us and our immediate communities.

A few years ago, I realized that the intertwining of my own and the field stories I witnessed had to be unraveled. I lived and breathed violence so deeply within my own system that it was easy for me to work with it in the field. If work appraisals are anything to value, all of mine were either ‘’excellent’’ or ‘’very good’’. I didn’t know how to do a bad job when it came to suffering.

Although I took time out in between each mission, I could only ever switch off for a week and then I would return to survival mode. I would transfer my inner anxiety to a job-hunting process, to mastering a new skill, to numbing out. Looking back, I wasn’t an easy partner to have and neither was he. We didn’t have the life skills to support each other and not staying in one place to deal with it made it so much worse.

And so after realizing my marriage couldn’t continue, we separated, divorcing two years after that. The strain of managing a long-distance relationship between two people who had had their fair share of violence in the past had become impossible (my ex-husband’s story is his own, but I can say it was certainly worse than my own).

I am one of the many divorced aid workers whose marriages didn’t survive the field. While it saddens me at times that I have seen and experienced so much violence, and experienced my own losses along the way, I don’t have any regrets. I know it is a cliché to say this but I honestly would not have the level of compassion and understanding for life I now have without all that has happened.

Violence in our own relationships is complicated. In my experience, it usually begins with unresolved violence within ourselves. Not all of us have to have encountered trauma or witnessed atrocities in the field to be affected at a deeper level. In many ways, the day to day stresses and strains of field work can have just as much an impact on our personal lives.

I am now a certified martial arts and yoga teacher, and have recently qualified as a health coach. On my last mission to a hard-duty station, where movements were restricted (no walking, frequent curfews), I taught classes up to six times a week to both local and international students. All brought layers of trauma and inner suffering with them to class and together, we found ways to silently release them in community.

These days I find myself in a much easier duty posting where I can move freely. Coming here was part of a conscious decision to come home to myself. I am now studying global health policy and in my current role at MSF, learning more about how war surgery and reconstructive care for those who have survived bombings can be integrated with psychosocial support and physiotherapy. We need to treat the whole person in our work, including ourselves and our own families.

At some point in our aid or development work, we will need to make sense of it all. Why we are here, what we need to process, and what our purpose in life really is. I believe we all have a destiny and that consciously or subconsciously we will find a way to live this out. Finding the strength and commitment to live a conscious life is the first step to creating the space for us to hold all of it, the good and the bad, the difference we made, and the many times our efforts have fallen short.

I believe we all pay a price for the work we do, we can only hope that what we take away at the end is worth all we have given. For myself, this has certainly been the case.

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7 things every woman needs to speak truth to power

Women Working in Aid and Development is honored to have a guest blog written by Jennifer Lentfer. Named as one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter,” Jennifer Lentfer (@intldogooder) has worked across southern and east Africa over the past decade. Focused on organizational development and learning, she has served with various international organizations and foundations in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, and the US. As the creator of, Lentfer works to place grassroots-driven development initiatives, which can be more genuinely responsive to local needs, at the forefront of international aid, philanthropy, and social enterprise.


Financial mismanagement. Lay-offs of local and international staff. Inappropriate conduct by leadership. Finally, a visit planned from headquarters to see what’s going on. What do you do?

 A superior continues to make passes at you. You find out you’re paid less than someone doing your exact same job. Someone takes undue credit for work you did. Why does this panel have only old, white men?!?

There are times in our aid careers when playing nice is no longer in our best interests. Telling a donor or a boss to go fly a kite is an intimidating experience, but there is a point when we have to speak up, no matter how uncomfortable we may be or how much power someone else has.

And unfortunately the aid world is still a boy’s game. While we’re represented among the workforce in proportional numbers, this is not the case among the leadership. We are going by their rules.

Oh wait, their rules don’t work for us? Guess we have to stand up for ourselves and change those rules. This will not happen by letting power go unchecked or unchallenged, on a personal or a sectoral level.

From my experience, here are seven things that can make these encounters a little less frightening.

 1)     Anger as fuel. Leymah GboweeAs women, we’re often taught to keep the peace. At age #%, I still struggle with expressing anger. I unfortunately know its ability to damage relationships. But I’ve also learned that anger can be a powerful force if I can stay with it and transform it as energy to carry me through a necessary confrontation.

2)    An ever-thickening, yet still permeable skin
. When I first took a course with The Op-Ed Project (highly recommended), they told us that stepping into the public space would require a thick skin. They were certainly right. Due or undue, look at the backlash Sheryl Sandberg has received. When speaking truth to power, you will receive criticism yourself. Some of it will need to bounce right off your exterior. Some of it will be necessary to move you to the next level

 3)    Use of the powerful’s own language and tactics. I struggle with just how much I have to act like the boys game in order to get the access to change the rules. I tend to favor infiltration and influence. But the words of a friend and fellow writer often also ring in my ear, “Sometimes, you also have to also scream and yell to get a seat at the table.”

 4)    Your peeps. Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg might have gotten further if she advised women not only to lean in, but to lean on each other. I tend the tribe as another source of my power. Allies ground me, validate me, are friendly adversaries, help lick my wounds, and share their own tales of speaking truth to power. Invaluable.

5)    A new definition of vulnerability. Powerlessness is only a perception. But I find that if I can acknowledge my own vulnerability, I can find a more secure place from which to advocate. In fact, my vulnerability emboldens me in a way. Courage is fueled by knowing that viewpoints under- or mis-represented in a push-push-muscle-might environment are necessary.

 6)    A back-up plan. Whistleblowers often have to start anew. It’s the price they pay for speaking truth to power. Even if I may have reason to think otherwise, I try to keep in mind that personal risk is often over-estimated. Bureaucracies and organizations benefit from a fear of losing our jobs. But we are not our organizations and it is foolish to equate income with security.

 7)    A touch of bravado. Speaking truth to power often means women are seen as loud-mouthed, cut-throat, self-righteous, hot-tempered, over emotional, unfeminine. A bitch you say? You can be afraid of these labels. I still am at times. But then I take a deep breath, remember to play big, and let it rip anyway. Desiree Adaway says it best, “It’s ok to be the smartest, savviest, most awesome person in the room…and have a vagina.”

Why do I think it’s important for women to speak truth to power? Because half the story is still not fully represented in the discourse. In the same way that we are not only whores or mothers, women working in aid and development are not only saviors or victims.

 So let her rip.

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Baby of mine

The below post has been written by Paula Gil Baizan. Paula is a relatively new mum (7 month child) and an experienced manager within the emergency aid sector. She is guest blogging for us on her honest reflections on being pregnant and a new mum while still trying to maintain links to the work place and her life BB (before baby).


For my ‘after 4 club’ pals 

It is 11am on a Tuesday and I haven’t had a shower. I’ve spent my morning scraping dry porridge off the kitchen floor, pureeing broccoli and scrubbing off stains from a tower of muslin squares. I’m also sporting a batik-like stain on my top from my son saying ´mamama’ with a mouthful of blueberry puree during breakfast. I’m tired but happy. In one week my baby will be 7 months old and it will be 8 months since I’ve been on maternity leave from my job in a humanitarian organisation.

Before I had a baby, my work was my life and my life was my work. I was starting exciting projects, meeting interesting people and working in the field as much as possible. I was interested in exploring new approaches and championed innovation. I was passionate and available 24hrs — even if that meant not seeing my husband very often. So when I found out I was pregnant, I hoped that the dedication and commitment I’d put into my work would come back to me in equal heaps of understanding and support.

I found out I was pregnant on a Saturday, and on that same Monday I was offered the opportunity to choose between taking a regional post in Nairobi with my current organisation, or accepting an offer to work in North Africa with another organisation. The first thing I did was to call the other organisation thanking them for their interest but explaining I couldn’t take the job because I was having a baby. “Oh I’m sorry”, was her first reaction. “I mean, congratulations”, she corrected. I then tried to take the Nairobi opportunity, but that didn’t work either. Insurance wouldn’t cover for my regular checkups and emergency treatment at the same time. If I’d gotten pregnant in the field maybe… but as a pregnant woman from head office I had to choose one or the other. I think this has been looked at since then, but at the time I got another “I’m sorry”.

My bump started showing very quickly which meant people in the office had to recognize my pregnancy well before I made the official announcement*. The reactions I got from other women colleagues ranged from joy to disappointment. When I said I would take a year off I would usually get a faintly superior smile of condescendence. I found this incredibly annoying, but then I realised there is a whole generation of women in this sector who have passionately struggled to ensure there was a clear space for them (and every woman that followed) who now might feel a bit let down when one of their peers decides not to take advantage of it. I might become a social pariah for saying this, but irrespective of their marital status and progeny there is a worrying number of lonely women in the humanitarian sector and we should talk about it  (editor note: and then there are SAFHAWs but we need to still talk about it).

Being pregnant also meant I had to slow down, not only because it’s the sensible thing to do but also because I had already lost a baby three years ago. So with this pregnancy I decided not to travel much. This changed the way other people perceived my work. It had a positive effect because suddenly what I did in the field was appreciated and needed. But it also meant that I was not considered for other opportunities and promotions. For me, it changed the way I approached my work and it also allowed me to re-align my priorities which can sometimes be very difficult to do in this sector where everything is tagged with ‘life saving’ and ‘emergency’.

Some months later I wrote a long handover note and left the office with a nice mani pedi voucher in hand. The first couple of weeks I checked my email almost every day (sometimes twice a day) and kept on following the news and the discussions on development blogs and publications. But the minute I gave birth it was like if someone used one of those mind clearing devices that Will Smith uses in Men in Black. In the first couple of months I was so concentrated on understanding what to do and how to survive with 3 hours of sleep a day that I didn’t have time to remember what life was like before. Then when I (kind of) got the hang of it, I tried to remember in between feeding the baby. I visited the office to show him off (and the only non pregnancy outfit that fitted) and I even attended a meeting. But still I felt so far removed from the people and their conversations** that it was difficult to relate to that person I was before having my baby. But now that he is 7 months old and I’m thinking of going back to work, I’m not even trying to remember how life was before. I don’t feel I need to. Thank you Will Smith.

What I’m trying to figure out now is how do women in this sector do the whole baby and work thing? Can we really have it all?  I know some women have made it work and have rewarding jobs working and bringing up their children in places like Sudan (‘where nannies are cheaper’). Other have married other people in the sector who are happy living in Democratic Republic of Congo or moving to Bangladesh and looking after the babies.

But what happens to the other women who, like me, don’t have a partner who is able to leave everything and move to the Philippines to look after the baby? How will I ever get back on the ladder if getting a job in the field is not as feasible as it was anymore? Should I just accept my fate and open a shop in Muswell Hill?

If anyone has an answer to any of these questions I’d really like to know.

Take care

Paula Gil Baizan


* Note to self: announcing you’re pregnant at the end of a team meeting by saying “by the way I’m not fat, just pregnant” is probably not the best idea.

** Warning: After you’d had a baby no one will talk to you about anything else but babies. Even if your baby is not around and all you’d like to do is have a drink and talk about Mali people will still think it is important to honor your condition and talk about nappys.


There are a few other posts on the blog about balancing work and life which might be an interested read after reading Paula post.

Work life balance: How we can put “work” and “life” on equal levels.

Is there life after work?

Can women establish a healthy work/ life balance in the aid industry?

It would be great if you can all post articles and/or links that you have on humanitarian women writing about these issues….we’ve all talked about it but it’s difficult to actually see it written down anywhere!

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Long Distance Relationships: Keeping the Home Fires Burning

And from the women’s perspective….


This was originally written just before my husband returned from a 14 week stint overseas and recently appeared as a guest post on Wanderlust, as a twin to Morealtitue’s wonderful post: In Which an Expat Talks Long Distance Relationships. It received such lovely responses that I wished to share it here also.

I put my husband on a plane to Ethiopia over thirteen weeks ago. This is our longest stint apart yet, never ever to be repeated. He has missed our second wedding anniversary, Christmas, the new year, his birthday, the birthdays of most of his family and the Mayan End of the World. (This was the sort of event I would have really liked my husband around for, as you may have gathered, he is handy in a disaster.) He arrives back the day after Valentines Day. So we miss that too. Yes, there is a strong…

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