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World Humanitarian Day – 19 August 2020

World Humanitarian Day is marked by the UN to “celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity”. The UN asks members states and the global community at large 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.

In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly formalised the day as World Humanitarian Day and designated it in memory of the 19 August 2003 bomb attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, killing 22 people, including the chief humanitarian in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Last year World Humanitarian Day 2019 Campaign: ‘Women Humanitarians’ focused on female humanitarians, sharing the stories of 24 women who had effected change in cities and towns and villages globally.  The 2019 campaign celebrated the unsung women humanitarians who have been working on the front lines for the survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by crises in their own communities. Women Humanitarians have operated in some of the most difficult regions including Afghanistan, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen and are amongst the hundreds of those who lost their lives while serving humanity.

The Global Humanitarian Overview report had projected that, “In 2020, nearly 168 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. This represents 1 in about 45 people in the world, and is the highest figure in decades.” Further, the report suggests that things will get worse if climate change and the root causes of conflict are not better addressed.

Come 2020, the unprecedented disruption of life as humans know it has changed the paradigm. The coronavirus messed up all the numbers forecasts that suggested that conflict and climate change have been nudged from centre stage. Not to mention the spike in figures of people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

This year, COVID-19 has been the biggest challenge to humanitarian operations around the world. The lack of access and restrictions placed by Governments around the world has resulted in communities, civil society and local NGOs being the frontline of the response.

Soroptimist International reflects on the humanitarian work the organisation in its 99 years of existence has delivered through international partnerships and a global network of members. Entrenched in its mission and vision are principles of equality and peace development so that Soroptimists inspire action and create opportunities to transform the lives of women and girls. Hence as an experienced organisation Soroptimist International has rich credentials of reaching out, and focusing on delivery of  humanitarian services.

Prior to World War II, Soroptimists worked to assist refugees fleeing unrest in central Europe. Many Soroptimists themselves ultimately fled from the Nazis’ consolidation of power, to seek safety elsewhere.

Every Federation of Soroptimist International has done large scale humanitarian work. Every four years SI launches a major international project in partnership with the UN or civil society agency. Soroptimists in 3000 communities worldwide support the project to improve the lives of women and girls across the globe. Past projects include Project Independence – Women Survivors of War – which helped to rebuild the lives of women in war ravaged locations such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda. Limbs for Life provided prostheses for victims of landmines in Angola, Georgia and Afghanistan. SI Sightsavers – by establishing a network of clinics across Bangladesh which helped bring down the incidence of night blindness in very young children. More recently helping women build water resources in 4 drought prone regions in 3 continents are just some of the examples of humanitarian work of the organization. Often humanitarian work is coupled with the SI focus – to empower women to be managers of their own resources and write their own destinies.

Currently Soroptimist credentials of humanitarianism for the communities has magnified many times. As a woman centric NGO, we understand that 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. These women deserve to be celebrated. They are needed today as much as ever to strengthen the global humanitarian response.

The diverse ways in which Soroptimists have responded to the challenging times is there to see. Having leapt into action to provide humanitarian relief to internal migrant labourers in India, Trinidad and Tabago, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

What of the thousands of daily wage earners whose earning have dried up and lockdown prevent them from functioning as before? Soroptimists have provided relief in terms of food, clothes and even up-skilling women to help tide them and their families over this period.

Support for the frontline workers, and essential workers is what Soroptimist have been doing non-stop, providing personal protective equipment, food packets, knitting utility items and even playing music for overworked medical staff are some of the diverse ways Soroptimists have risen to the need of the hour.

The unfortunate spike in violence and domestic violence incidents have galvanised Soroptimists to run relief bags to refuge centres and support with basic needs for women in distress.

Elsewhere women have got down to designing and crafting masks that have now become an essential part of a person’s attire. A club in Chennai, made several hundred mask and sent them to the police staff and to the council workers who continue to man their posts. SI President’s Appeal has been tailored to include masks for equality – using both the relief element as well as to reduce inequalities.  It is essential that the advice on their design, manufacture and use issued by the WHO is heeded.

Frontline workers, aid workers who have rendered selfless service are today’s real life heroes. The pandemic has re-defined humanitarian work and Soroptimists stand up to salute these real heroes.

Nisha Ghosh
APD Peace