Chasing dreams in Sudan
The women of UNICEF's Blue Nile field office
Omnia's story: Chasing dreams
As a little girl, Omnia dreamed of working for UNICEF. Living only a few blocks away from the UNICEF office in Khartoum, she passed the building almost every day on her way to school. As she grew older, she became more convinced that she wanted to work for the most vulnerable children in Sudan and when the Blue Nile Field Office opened a position, she did not hesitate to apply.
Her family didn’t let her go easily. As the only girl in a family with four boys, her father and brothers didn’t like the idea of their sister and daughter working in a hardship location like Blue Nile: a conflict-affected state where some areas have not been reached by humanitarians in years. Was it safe enough? What would people think of a girl living alone?
Her father undertook the nine-hour drive from Khartoum to Damazine with her the first time. He met the - then all male - staff of the field office and finally allowed her to stay. It was her first time far from home, and alone.
Though it is not always easy, Omnia believes that more women should join the UNICEF field teams. “In Sudan men are often not allowed to talk to women, especially not about sensitive issues like breastfeeding or hygiene. As women, we have access to the spaces where men don’t; among women we can address issues that our male colleagues cannot.”
“When I talk to mothers or girls, I don’t say ‘you’, I address them as ‘we’, also including myself as a woman. For example, I say: ‘We should wash our hands with soap, or we should send our daughters to school. It gives them a sense of partnerships, we understand each other.”
One big challenge in Blue Nile state is the issue of open defecation. Women often don’t have a toilet in their house and have no choice but to defecate outside in the bushes. Because they feel embarrassed they often go after dark, which increases the risk of rape and sexual harassment. “We tell the women to ask their husbands to construct a latrine in the house before they marry. It is their right to be safe from violence and abuse and have access to proper sanitation and hygiene,” says Omnia.
Being one of the few women in the field offices has positive and negative sides. “Our male colleagues are very polite and helpful, they ask us to join their families for dinner so that we don’t feel lonely.” But, Omnia does admit that there are also some challenges. “The first time my water and sanitation colleagues started to talk about things like toilets and poo I felt very shy,” laughs Omnia. “Luckily it quickly became normal.”
Omnia’s family is more supportive now that they see that she is happy and working hard. “The first weeks they used to call me every hour, but now after six months they call maybe once or twice per day,” says Omnia. She also became a role model for her nieces and friends. “They see that it is possible to live away from your family, to be independent, have a career and chase your dreams.”
Fatima's story: Reaching for the sky and beyond
Three months after Omnia’s arrival, Fatima arrived in Damazine. She had just finished her university degree in pharmaceutics and was ready for a new challenge. One day she opened her email and found an email from UNICEF offering her a job in the nutrition sector. She didn’t hesitate to accept the offer and started the following week. After spending a year and a half in Khartoum, Fatima got a position in Blue Nile State. “This was a huge jump in my career. At that point, I knew that I was doing what I always wanted to do; protecting children’s rights and assisting those most in need,” she says.
Like Omnia, it was not easy to convince her family to let her go. “I initially told them that it would only be for three months, and then told them the contract was extended for another three months,” laughs Fatima. The girls live together in an apartment above the UNICEF office. It is part of the ‘pink initiative ’ that encourages women to work in hardship field offices in Sudan. It offers them a safe home away from home. “Without this initiative it would be much more difficult for me to work in a remote location like Blue Nile,” says Fatima. “It certainly helps to attract more female staff.”
Fatima’s enjoys the experience of working directly with communities. “Often, I feel that instead of providing medicine, I am the medicine: talking and listening to community members, especially women and girls is very important. One time I visited a camp for South Sudanese refugees. I stayed for a while with them, eating their food and drinking their water. I particularly remember one woman, Suzannah, she escaped a war and fled from place to place. She arrived in the camp heavily pregnant and soon after delivered a baby girl. UNICEF provided her with safe water and told her how to breastfeed her daughter. I saw them becoming healthy and strong again and was proud of the work we are doing.”
“Suzannah was my age but didn’t have anything. She didn’t have a house nor a job. I feel that because I have all these things I should not only reach for the sky but even go beyond the sky to protect the most vulnerable children in my country.”
Omnia and Fatma are two incredible examples of women in the field. They are powerful change agents who make a difference every day not just in their work, but in their communities and in their families.