On World Humanitarian Day, WHO recognizes women at the forefront of humanitarian work

WHO/Rocio Lopez

Lack of access to essential health services is one of the biggest challenges for people living in emergency settings. Limited freedom of movement due to insecurity, disrupted medical supplies and shortages of medical personnel make humanitarian response in such areas especially challenging. Despite this, humanitarian workers keep providing life-saving services, taking care of the sick, preventing diseases and promoting healthy lifestyles.

World Humanitarian Day is dedicated to recognizing the work of humanitarian personnel and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes. This year, WHO highlights the special contribution of women humanitarians and their tireless work to bring health and hope to those living in conflict.

In protracted emergencies, such as the ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises in the Syrian Arab Republic and eastern Ukraine, as well as the refugee health response in Turkey, community-based health-care services ensure that essential help reaches those most in need. However, despite the predominant participation of women in community health-care delivery, their participation as frontline responders is not always recognized.

“Women working within communities bring their knowledge and skills closer to people in need. Recognizing the vital contribution of all those who make up the community-based health workforce is essential for better local and national emergency preparedness. These women, unsung heroes, deserve to be celebrated,” says Dorit Nitzan, Acting Regional Emergency Director at WHO/Europe.

Bringing health care closer to people in conflict-affected areas of the Syrian Arab Republic

An estimated 4 million people are currently still living in the north-western part of the Syrian Arab Republic, which after 8 years of war is the one of the worst-affected regions. Civilians face daily bombardments, shelling and other forms of violence. Health facilities are frequently the focus of attacks.

“The insecurity has left many people in fear of moving from their homes, postponing needed health care. That is why our work is so important, since we are the ones moving around from house to house,” explains Helama Ali, a supervisor of community health workers in Idleb.

To ensure that people receive essential care, WHO has strengthened the training provided to community health workers. “Five years ago, we did not know what community health workers were supposed to do. It was all new to us. With WHO, we developed our skills and now I am training and supervising new community health workers,” adds Helama.

WHO and health partners have been developing the community health worker programme by introducing a standardized curriculum, developing appropriate educational and awareness-raising materials, and establishing an effective screening and referral system.

Helama explains, “I’m a proud humanitarian. Women are the best for this job because we are accepted in peoples’ homes. This access allows me to help and protect them from diseases and ensure they receive the care they need. Being in direct contact with the community is the most rewarding part of my job and why I stopped being a midwife in a health facility. I encourage all women to do this job, even if it is very dangerous in our area.”

With funding from Norway and the United States of America, there are now over 600 WHO-trained and supervised community health workers in the north-western part of the country.

Mobile community teams address mental health needs in conflict-affected areas of eastern Ukraine

Women humanitarians provide essential health care to the most vulnerable communities, and demonstrate their strength and resilience in all conflict-affected areas across the WHO European Region.

Tetiana Yartseva, like Helama, spends her days working along the contact line of warring parties with vulnerable groups, including those who are internally displaced. Tetiana is a social worker living in Slovyansk, a small town in Donetsk Region that is affected by the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. For the last 3 years, Tetiana has been working in a community mobile mental-health team supported by WHO.

“Together with the psychiatrist, psychologist and the nurse, we serve one of the most vulnerable and stigmatized groups – those suffering from mental health disorders. Our clients, such as women with traumatic war-related experiences and single mothers, receive medical treatment and counselling,” says Tetiana.

Mental health issues remain stigmatized and pose significant health risks in the community. The team provides much-needed support to people with moderate to severe mental health disorders.

“I find it very rewarding when I can see that our assistance helps people recover and get their normal lives back – to get a job, improve their relationships with friends and family, and actively participate in the community,” Tetiana adds.