Rebecca Pankhurst Lapina – Chief Field Services UNICEF Myanmar
For every child, hope!
What is one of your most memorable experiences working for UNICEF?
There are many to choose from. One of my most memorable experiences is from my first post with UNICEF as an Emergency Specialist working in Guinea Conakry. I was managing a program to reintegrate 2,000 former child soldiers. With UNICEF’s support, the Guinean Government had identified places for the former child soldiers in state vocational training centers. Quite early on I went to visit one of the centers and on arrival I was met by a small group of former child soldiers, adolescent boys who were frustrated and angry because there had been a delay in delivering food to the host families they were staying with. One of them, who I will call the ‘ringleader’, told me that if he wanted to he could kill me. I didn’t feel too much at risk – one of UNICEF’s Guinean staff was present, who was very experienced, as were the local partner providing psychosocial support. I felt that they were venting their frustrations in the language they knew best, which was one of violence. Together we managed to calm them down.
A few months later I saw the ringleader at an event at the vocational training center. He had started his studies and was doing well. As I address the former child soldiers, now students, he gave me a cheeky smile and stepped up to shake my hand.
What advice do you have for women currently working in an emergency context?
My key piece of advice to women working in an emergency context is to take care of yourself. Build things into your daily routine that make you feel good – a good coffee first thing in the morning, 15 minutes of yoga or meditation before you go to sleep (there are many sites that you can download and then play offline when the internet connection is bad), a chat with a good friend. Take holidays regularly – spend time with your family and friends and do things you enjoy that refresh and recharge you.
Emergency work is often exciting and rewarding, but it is also draining. There will always be huge work demands, but if you want to really help children in crises you also need to help yourself, so you can stay centered and strong. Particularly as you may face challenges that are specific to women – unfortunately, discrimination and harassment of women aid workers are a continuing reality. Although sometimes emergency work feels like a sprint, in reality, it is a marathon – more and more crises around the world are protracted – and you need to have the stamina and also make sure you remain intact!
What are the main benefits/challenges of working in an emergency context?
One of the main benefits is that you can see how the work that UNICEF is doing is helping women and children – whether it is supporting the health and dignity of women and children in IDP camps, saving lives by working with our partners to combat public health crises or reunifying children separated by conflict or disaster with their families. It is incredibly rewarding and satisfying to feel that you are helping children.
One of the main challenges is that you can feel like you never did enough. You will know that there are families out there still caught in the crossfire of conflict, children who have lost not only their family but the entire childhood, the pregnant woman in a far-off village who did not get vaccinated. And the underlying challenges are huge – often you can feel helpless in the face of conflict that has been ongoing for years or in some cases decades, or a country that cannot significantly improve preparedness (stronger schools, safer hospitals, safer homes) because of long-running poverty. You wish that there was more you could do to stop the conflict or address long-running poverty. But you have to remind yourself that there is immense value in saving one life (imagine it was you, your father, mother, husband or brother) and that addressing the longer-term issues takes time and patience.
When I look at the challenges we are facing today – protracted crises, growing tensions and fissures in so many societies along racial and religious times – I see even more the importance of working and struggling for what we believe in in the face of adversity. I am reminded of the quote “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
What does your typical work day look like?
It depends! A day might consist of back-to-back meetings with UNICEF, other UN agencies, NGO partners and government. It could consist of working – by myself or in a team – to draft the latest situation report. These days I spend quite a lot of time managing others. The days I like most are when I am in the field – visiting children and women who UNICEF has helped, talking to frontline workers – teachers, nurses, counsellors – to understand their challenges and how we can help them, or forging relationships with partners – government, non-state actors – who are key in fact core to the work that we do, seeing the good that has been done and brainstorming with UNICEF and partners on how we can fix the challenges.
What role does diversity play in working in an emergency context?
Diversity is very important in an emergency context, including ensuring a good balance of genders and nationalities. We each come with our own experiences and understanding and they are even more valuable when they come from a diverse range of backgrounds.