Q&A: Dr Jemilah Mahmood on the importance of women in humanitarian response

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood (center), undersecretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Photo by: Crossroads Foundation / CC BY-NC

CANBERRA — Currently serving as the undersecretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Dr. Jemilah Mahmood began her career as a successful gynecologist in Malaysia before turning her attention to humanitarian support as the founder of MERCY Malaysia, which she led for a decade from 1999.

Her fierce determination to provide aid during crisis has repeatedly put Mahmood on the front line. In Afghanistan, she faced down the Taliban while negotiating access to medical support. In 2003, she was shot in the hip while providing support in Baghdad.

Her passion and medical expertise has put Mahmood in demand globally. Prior to joining the IFRC, Mahmood worked for the United Nations, where she served as the chief of the humanitarian response branch at the U.N. Population Fund, chief of the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat, and as a member of the Advisory Group of the Central Emergency Response Fund.

Last week, Mahmood visited Canberra where she met with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to provide support to the Australian Red Cross in progressing the implementation of the localization agenda under the Grand Bargain.

She also made time to speak to Devex about her work, including the importance of increased focus on women in humanitarian responses. Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

You began your career as a gynecologist before bringing your expertise to humanitarian responses. Combining your expertise in health with humanitarian responses, how important is it to ensure there is appropriate consideration of women’s health needs in the humanitarian setting, especially with the reintroduction of the Mexico City Policy by the United States?

It is still early days of the Mexico City Policy [also known as the “global gag rule”] and we haven’t seen much impact at this stage.

Many governments across the world recognize the importance of women to have a choice in their reproductive health needs. And I think that common sense will prevail; I have great faith in that.

We at the federation have come up with policies and guidance for our national societies highlighting the importance of gender perspective in our humanitarian responses. This is guidance across the board from better data enabling understanding of gender breakdowns to ensuring availability of health services. It is not just about family planning, but maternal and child health care and addressing and preventing gender-based violence.

These are critical areas and we need our finger on the pulse to ensure gender is an important part of all of our programming, as should all organizations working in this space.

What has been the value in being a woman working in this space and how important is it to have more female leaders in the humanitarian sector?

It is incredibly important for women in this field. More and more, we are seeing women being marginalized and hidden. But women like us have a great opportunity to be able to reach out to them. In many communities where women are hidden, it is only other women who can meet them, reach out to them and really understand their perspective.

I find that being a woman is advantageous. Being able to access other women, especially those affected by crisis and conflict, also allows access to men. And through that you can have an influencing power on families and have discussions that are grounded on what the family needs.

There is also better access to people with disability. A lot of people with disability are cared for by women, so being a woman gives access — personally I believe better access to meet people hidden.

Working in the humanitarian sector is a tough job and we need to recognize that we are not all built the same way. But there are also aspects of humanitarian work that may not be as strenuous or as tough as conditions I have faced, and these areas need women to help rethink programs. Women’s perspectives are very different and it is such an advantage to have women on any team.

One of your experiences in a humanitarian response was negotiating with a Taliban tribal leader to gain access to women in the region for provision medical assistance. Was being a woman a factor in the success of this negotiation?

I absolutely believe it was. My negotiation was on the basis that I wanted to provide health care for women. I had women health workers and I wanted to get women in Afghanistan capacitated. To have this difficult discussion as a woman — and a Muslim woman — I am able to challenge some of the notions they have. And if they are keen to ensure they have health care for women, they need to be nice to us otherwise won’t get the services required.

I have never had to be forceful in interactions with difficult militant groups. You just have to be yourself and state your case plainly, but also with a lot of respect. We may not agree with the people we negotiate with, but we have to respect them as human beings because they have the respect of their own communities. It is about giving face.

I come from a mixed multicultural background where giving face is very important in our culture.

Where you need to be firm, be firm and stick to your principles and reasons why you want to do something. But you don’t have to be tough. I am not a man and cannot behave like one; I will not behave like one. But using diplomacy, soft skills, being honest — and stating that if they cannot meet their end of the requirements, we cannot deliver services they desire — is important.

I am constantly in situations where I am negotiating with military leaders. With crises around the world, the primary responders are military, including in natural disasters. The military are usually the first boots on the ground in large, logistical responses.

I was fortunate to have civil military training through the U.N., so being able to also understand where they are coming from — having empathy — is important. You can put yourself in the other person’s shoe, understand their perspective, and then negotiate on terms understandable to them.

Your son was your inspiration to begin working in the humanitarian space. How important is the support of family for you to continue encouraging your work and how do you involve them?

My son who inspired me I think is regretting it! He always tells me he feels partly to blame for me leaving home and going into dangerous situations. But I tell them a lot about what I do — not in detail though.

The other thing I do with my children is when there is peace or when there is a post-crisis situation, I bring my family to see what I have done and the conditions I am working in so they have a better understanding of why I am doing my work.

It is really important that I have the support of my family; they come first. Because they completely understand what I am doing, they have been my greatest supporters.

I am proud of my two boys. I always say whoever marries them are the luckiest women, because they are feminists and have a lot of respect for women. But it is not my work alone that has shaped them into better people; their father is an important influence on who they are.

You have had extensive frontline experience in delivering humanitarian response, including being shot while working. How important do you think it is to ensure those who are developing solutions, policies, guidance and budgets for humanitarian responses are speaking from experience?

From the perspective of the federation, we are very lucky that we are a membership organization of 190 national societies around the world, with 20 million volunteers on the ground. So the policies we develop at the federation are grounded in reality.

We work in consultations with our national societies, who really give us an indication of what will really make a difference on the ground.

Policies are only as good as their implementation. Sometimes it is easy to imagine what might work in the field without having a reality check. More and more now the use of mobile phones enabling information flows from the field has allowed humanitarian agencies to get information. And I think people now are increasingly vocal and we have now, as a system, created more space for the voice of affected people to be heard.

In the role I had previously — running the World Humanitarian Summit — we went out to talk to affected people, implementing agencies and other groups across the world. More and more we hear affected people saying we need to understand the context they live in for developing programs and policies relevant to them.

It is a wakeup call for everyone that whatever we do, context matters and the field realities are important.

The federation’s approach is through a resilience lens, which means we need to accompany our national societies through the entire process and ensure funding is flexible to support their needs. If we can strengthen national societies, they will develop the ability to fundraise, they will develop the capacity to respond and prevent many of the crises occurring in the world.

What are the upcoming work priorities for yourself?

Increasing funding to localized actors is an important priority for me at the moment. The success of IFRC is dependent on the success and sustainability of our local actors.

We will be working hard to do more field testing of what localization really means, building connections between local and international action and ensuring there is more funding to mechanisms for local society. At the end of the day, you and I know it is local organizations that are the first to respond — but they are the furthest away from the funding that is available to the humanitarian sector. We need to turn this around and ensure there is some degree of equity in crisis funding.

Associated with this we also need to ensure there is institutional building to ensure there are good and strong societies for donors and other partners. They need to be institutionally well governed, have integrity and be accountable. They need to aspire to have standards as good as any other organization.

We need to support them, but it is very difficult to find funds for institutional building of local and national civil societies. Donors prefer to give money for a response, but not to make an institution strong. This doesn’t just apply to the Red Cross; this is across the board. So we need to look at how we bring in development partners and donors. Civil society development is very much part of national development agendas.

Within our 190 national societies, we have some that are ahead in governance, accountability and methodology. So we also need to get better at sharing throughout the network as a true partnership to develop our own capacities, including accompaniment and mentorship.

But in some circumstances, who might be the best placed corporations to support that national society? It could be private sector, academic or a range of actors.

From my own experience running my organization MERCY Malaysia, at the time there weren’t many humanitarian organizations in Malaysia where we were based and we relied on PricewaterhouseCoopers, Boston Consulting Group and others to look at our governance, risk management and human resources. Finding the best placed organization or entity to support in the absence of an International Red Cross is an important consideration when trying to achieve our humanitarian goals and part of our work will be to facilitate and support that.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.