What is life like for a humanitarian worker, working to protect women in conflict zones all over the world?

Originally from Toowoomba QLD, Andrea Cullinan’s role as a humanitarian worker takes her to conflict zones all over the world. A UNHCR Senior Protection Officer in Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), she implements Safe from the Start, a new global initiative to protect women and girls in conflict situations.

Andrea distributing sanitary pads

“I was stationed in the Gambella region of Ethiopia at the heart of the South Sudan refugee influx. At the peak of the emergency, we were receiving 1,000 to 1,500 refugees a day, a massive influx. In the whole area, we had five refugee camps with 256,000 refugees.”

“This is a distribution day of women’s underwear and sanitary pads —  we call them ‘dignity kits’. Everyone’s very happy here, all sitting down waiting for the truck to come. When you get any group of women together like this in South Sudan, they break out in song. These things make your day ― it’s just beautiful.

Sanitary items are something we are trying to promote as a core emergency relief item. For the first four months we had none in these camps at all. Having access to sanitary items has an incredible knock-on effect. It keeps girls in school; it stops women being confined to their shelters at that time of the month. It has a big impact on their lives.”

“We were getting a lot of donor visits at this time, including VIPs like HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark"

Andrea Cullinan with Princess Mary of Denmark

“We were getting a lot of donor visits at this time, including VIPs like HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. She’s Patron of United Nations Population Fund and visits a lot of refugee camps. Her particular interest is maternal and reproductive health. She was very personable and knowledgeable and the refugees loved her.”

Refugees celebrate International Women’s Day

“This was International Women’s Day. We try to give women a big profile because they are so disempowered in these situations. These days give us the chance to redress that imbalance. SGBV prevention and response is a lifesaving activity as much as food and shelter. If you are not keeping people safe and protecting their rights, you are not saving their lives.

Sexual and gender based violence prevention and response is a lifesaving activity as much as food and shelter.

The camp has a women’s forum that comes up with ideas about how to combat sexual violence in the camp. Rape is very common, particularly for young girls, as well as other forms of abuse such as denying food.”

Refugees performing a community awareness skit

“These refugee outreach workers are performing a community awareness skit on domestic violence. The root cause of SGBV is gender inequality. If women don’t have a voice, if they are not equally represented on committees and men dominate, these issues perpetuate.”

Andrea enjoying a traditional Ethiopian tea ceremony

This is a moment of down time inside our quarters in the UNHCR compound. Last year we were working seven days a week but this year we started having Sundays off. This is a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Grass is strewn on the ground for ceremonial purposes and popcorn is served.

Refugee children touch Andrea’s hair

“This was one of my last days in Ethiopia. The children were always wanting to touch my skin, my hair — they’ve never felt hair like this. So on this day I said — okay kids, go for it! I was laughing so hard. I had a moment of pure happiness and joy to be there.”

UNHCR is dedicated to protecting and supporting refugees and those forcibly displaced from their homes.

Learn more about how UNHCR is helping support survivors of SGBV

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