Inspired by her mother’s work helping migrant farm workers in the southwestern United States, Kate Forbes grew up understanding how hard people struggle for a better life. Starting as a Red Cross volunteer at her local branch, she now leads the world’s largest network of local humanitarian organizations. As newly elected president of the IFRC, she talks about extraordinary volunteers she’s met around the world who’ve risked everything to help others, and she explains her approach to today’s most complex humanitarian crises, from climate change to migration.
In a small town in Slovakia’s southwest, Romy Mikušincová grew up dreaming about discovering the origin of the stars and the universe. It was her curiosity, she says, that made her interested in pursuing a career in science – specifically in astrophysics and theoretical physics.
Today, she is living her dream. She studies theoretical physics and astrophysics at the Roma Tre University, where she researches one of the greatest mysteries of astrophysics: black holes. Black holes are created when stars at the end of their life become so dense they collapse in on themselves and even light cannot escape their gravity.
Still, there is much to learn.
“The study of black holesisn’t a time-limited projectbecause we discovernew informationevery day”, she says.“Currently, I’m working on a simulationof black hole surveillanceforIXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer), a satellite that will be launchedby the end of 2021”.
“Giving purpose to my free time”
The time and effortrequired of a theoretical physics student is immense. But even thatis not the only thing that keeps Romy busy.Just as her passion for science grew as a teenager, Romy began another journey as a volunteer for theSlovak Red Cross.“Volunteering was interesting mainly because I wanted to help others, and to give purpose to my free time,” she says.
These days, that free time is mostly spent ona newprojectthat addresses the needs of young peopleby discussingtopics that arenotoften talked about, but which are key social and humanitarian challenges.
“Our main topics arehate-speech, peer pressure,cyberbullying andgender equality,” says Romy, adding that due to Covid-19 restrictions, most of that work today is online.
The study of black holes may seem like light years from the everyday world of young people and volunteering. But to Romy, there is a clear connection. After all, the scientific method of asking questions, investigation and solving complex problems can also be very useful in the human sphere. “It’s a great advantage when someone from a science background enters the volunteering circle with the mindset of dealing with problems until they are solved,” she explains.
Accomplishing great things
This dual path of science and humanitarian concern is not new to Romy. Milan Holota, the director at Romy’s secondary school, said her preference for science-related subjects was clear early on, as was her desire to make the world around her a better place.
“Her favourite (subjects) were the natural science classes, and she was exceptional in her extracurriculars,” he said, referring to her after-school work with the Red Cross, where she became one of its most active members.
But she did not do all of this on her own. She recalls that the support oftwo women –hermother and her secondary school physics teacher– wereessential to her pursuit of a career in science and research.
This kind of support can be essential for young women and girls interested in science. For many, such a pathis blocked by cultural attitudes that steer girls away from male-dominated topics such as mathematics and science.
Accordingto theUNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS),there is a clear gender gapin the science field –only 30 per centof the world’s researchers are women.It was even less in Romy’s class at university.At the beginning of her university studies,onlya fourth of the studentswere women.
“I thinkit is mainly becausegirls are not encouraged topick careers in naturalscience,” she says.“I want to tell allwomen and girls tobuild strong relationshipswith each other,to stop belittling one anotherand to help one anotherbecause I thinkthat’s how we accomplish truly great things”.
For Eva Turró, science has almost been about much more than a career. Her passion for biology has allowed her tosee the world with different eyes, to understand, respect and take care of the environment and the people around her.
Born into a family ofdoctors,sheremembers as a child watching her grandfatherhelping families as a medicalpractitionerin her hometown in Barcelona, Spain.While medicine became a tradition in herfamily,she chose tolearn about humans and their interaction with the world through a differentlens.
“I thought that it would be a good ideato try and help peoplefrom a biological perspective,” says Turró, who most recently used that approach in her work as an emergency response delegate for the Spanish Red Cross in Mozambique and Honduras following devastating storms in 2019 and 2020.
In the flooding, devastation and disruption that comes after major storms, the household and neighborhood ecosystems that maintain people’s lives is turned upside down. Clean water is suddenly hard to come by. Washing and going to the bathroom can’t be done in the normal way. People are stressed, hungry, sad and they may have to stay in homes or shelters with many others.
It’s a biological environment where diseases and bacteria can thrive and easily spread.
Eva’s job is to use her knowledge of the natural and human world to help people in these situations understand the science and take steps to keep themselves safe. “I get to go into communities and have the chance of explaining things scientifically,” she says. “Things like ‘Why is hand-washing important?’,‘Why do weneed to prevent diseases like diarrhoea?’and ‘Why is it important to treat the water?’”
Her knowledge comes in very handy when helping these communities find or restore access to clean water and sanitation systems, as well as encourage coping tactics that preventthe spread of diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera or other infectious diseases.
The path of science and humanity
While Eva’s desire to help others began at an early age, her particular path became clear after she finished her studies and spent some timetraveling. She soon realizedshe could also help people far from her hometown of Barcelona and so she opted todo something in the humanitarian world.One way to do that was to connect her desire to help others with her scientific leanings.
Her first international assignments were as hygiene promoter in Mozambique after Cyclone Idai in 2019 and in Honduras after two hurricanes, Eta and Iota, smashed into Central America within two weeks of each other in December 2020. Those two storms caused widespread flooding affecting more than 7.5 million people in the region, of which 4 million are in Honduras.
“We worked toreach communities and shelterswhere people have found refuge after the hurricane,” Eva says of her work in Honduras.“Not only through awareness-raising activities,but also distributing menstrual hygiene kits”.
An invaluable opportunity
Eva’s scientific background has allowed hernot onlytoshare whatshe has learned as a biologist, but also to learn from othersandform real bonds with people from many different walks of life.
“To listen to the life stories from all over theworld … To go anywhere in the world, not just as a traveller, but to help others…This is invaluable”.
In a small village in Barkeol, Mauritania, the sun has reached its midday peak, forcing villagers to seek shelter from its harsh rays in the shade.
Sat under a tent made of colourful printed fabric, a group of twenty women are chatting and smiling as they enjoy a lively discussion and debate. Rakia Salem, a volunteer from the Mauritanian Red Crescent, has just completed a training session with them on how to recognise signs of malnutrition in their children using a special bracelet.
Rakia joined the Mauritanian Red Crescent in 2020 as a facilitator for this local ‘mothers' club’, which was set up that same year.
"My role is to train mothers to screen children for malnutrition using the MUAC (mid-upper arm circumference) bracelet, which is a simple, easy-to-use tool that can help prevent a deterioration in their state of health," explains Rakia.
To demonstrate this to the group, she welcomes brave little Mohamed, a 3-year-old boy who was diagnosed with malnutrition a few weeks ago and who is now on the road to recovery thanks to early treatment.
Mother knows best
In Mauritania, many children are at risk of malnutrition due to recurrent food and nutrition insecurity, which is also affecting many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In response, the Mauritanian Red Crescent has been exploring different ways of diagnosing children more quickly and simply—with mothers’ clubs proving to be particularly successful.
“Being around their children every day, mothers are best placed to detect the first signs of malnutrition. That’s why we put them at the centre of our screening strategies,” explains Mohamed Abdallahi, Food Security and Livelihoods Manager at the Mauritanian Red Crescent.
There are now ten mothers' clubs in Barkeol, all providing women with a friendly forum to discuss maternal and child health, hygiene, sanitation, and good food and nutrition practices.
Crucially, the women who attend the mothers’ clubs have learnt how to detect signs of malnutrition early before it gets too advanced. Early detection considerably reduces cases becoming severe and prevents the need for hospitalization, which in turn relieves pressure on the limited available health services in the region.
“The earlier malnutrition is detected, the shorter and more effective the treatment. There are also fewer medical complications and a lower the risk of mortality," adds Mohamed.
Supporting women’s livelihoods
The mothers' clubs are also a great forum for building food resilience within communities in other ways.
As most families don’t have the resources to meet minimum daily food needs for their children, the Mauritanian Red Crescent is also training mothers’ club members in how to set up their own money-making activities.
Thanks to a small grant from the Mauritanian Red Crescent, the mothers' club in Barkeol has opened up a general store through which they sell food at a lower cost to villagers.
Other local women have received interest-free loans through the club, enabling them to set up small businesses selling couscous, processing cereals, making clothes, or producing soup. Some have chosen to invest their money in market gardening to boost their yields.
“We used to have a lot of difficulties, but thanks to the support of the Mauritanian Red Crescent, we are now able to improve our families' food security and diversify our children's diets,” explains Khadidiatou Mohamed Abdallahi, President of the mothers' club.
To support people affected by food insecurity across Sub-Saharan Africa, the IFRC launched an Emergency Appeal in October 2022 to help Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in 15 countries provide urgent and long-term assistance.
To date, the IFRC network has reached:
600,000 people with cash and voucher assistance
425,000 people with health and nutrition support, including child supplementary feeding
232,000 people with livelihoods support – such as training in income-generating activities and livestock management
1.2 million people with water, sanitation and hygiene assistance
In Mauritania, the appeal is supporting mothers’ clubs, like the one in Barkeol, and cash assistance to thousands of households.
To donate to our appeal and help us reach even more people, please click here.
Gladis Gómez wears a purple Huipil, a traditional outfit worn by people from the mountainous, western part of Guatemala. The colour represents mourning, as she sadly lost a distant relative a few days earlier.
Despite this, a smile lights up her face—a smile that so many people in her community recognise.
Gladis is the President of a local health committee in her small village of Xecaracoj. The committee brings together a dozen rural women who have been trained in key health issues by the Guatemalan Red Cross so they can help promote healthy practices in their community.
Together, the women go door to door around their village, sharing knowledge on how people can prevent common diseases and deaths, especially among children.
This work is vital. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world, and more than half the population live below the poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic also took a heavy toll on the country – with 20,000 people dying from the disease within 3 years.
‘’We have spread the new knowledge given to us by the Guatemalan Red Cross to inform men, boys and girls about things as simple as hand washing, cleaning our homes and our streets, and the importance of breastfeeding and nutrition.”
“We now know that healthy habits make the difference between having a strong and healthy community or continuing to take our babies to the hospital,'' says Gladis.
Juan Poyón, Epidemic and Pandemic Control Technician for the Guatemalan Red Cross, says he’s learned a lot from the health committees, like the one run by Gladis, and has used the women’s local knowledge to guide and improve their support.
“We identified key issues, for example, that their priorities were the prevention of COVID-19 or malnutrition. Today, with the committees already trained, we identified that the women wanted to reach more people, in fact, they prioritised radio, information kiosks or messages via WhatsApp as the best channels to share their knowledge more widely,” explains Juan.
To share these valuable community insights even further, the Guatemalan Red Cross connected the women-led health committees with the country's Ministry of Health—which has proved to be an eye opener for the national authorities. They’re now working together to improve community health across the country.
Ana Gómez, Epidemiologist at the Guatemalan Ministry of Health, explained:
“We have worked with the Guatemalan Red Cross to identify people’s needs, respecting the diversity of the population. We learned about, and welcomed, women's points of view to strengthen community health, and along the way we confirmed that their role is key.”
“Women are the main users of health services. They also play a fundamental role in the education of the next generation who will be in charge of the country. Involving women ensures positive behavioural change in families and communities, and therefore contributes to improving Guatemala's health,” says Ana.
Spending time with Gladis, it’s clear to see that she takes a lot of pride in her work, and that she and her fellow health committee members are happy their voices are being heard.
As she sits and weaves herself a new corte – a traditional Mayan skirt – she points to the yellow stripes that represent hope.
“Tomorrow I will wear a yellow Huipil to represent the colour of life, the rays of the sun, and corn,” says Gladis.
“The women of this community are special, very special, because today we have the knowledge to protect life.”
The promotion of these local health committees in Guatemala is part of the epidemic and pandemic preparedness pillar of our Programmatic Partnership with the European Union.
So far, 1250 families in the rural area of Quetzaltenango, western Guatemala, have received valuable and trusted health advice provided by the local health committees.
Implemented by 24 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world, including in Panama, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Ecuador in the Americas, the Programmatic Partnership helps communities to reduce their risks and be better prepared for disasters and health emergencies.
The IFRC will continue to strengthen the capacities of communities in Guatemala to prevent pandemics and epidemics; and to encourage more women to take leadership positions so they can have a profound, positive impact on the future of their communities.
Kuala Lumpur / Geneva, 26 December 2022 - Every day, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) supports thousands of people in Afghanistan to cope with disasters, hunger, and access to health care. At the heart of these services are women and girls: as recipients, designers, and deliverers. They are the centre of our work.
Women are the main clients of the primary health services supported through the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society. Female medical staff make these services possible as doctors, nurses, midwives, and outreach workers. Women lead the vocational training and care and support for destitute women in our Marastoon centres across the country. Women are critical to how we design and monitor services for women and girls. They should not, and cannot, be replaced by male colleagues.
IFRC is extremely concerned by the recent announcements of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) suspending women’s access to higher education and to work in national and international non-governmental organisations.
It is not clear yet how these announcements will apply to the IFRC. We remain committed to gender diversity, to our female colleagues and to service continuity involving female colleagues. That is how we reach communities and the most vulnerable across the country. We will represent this commitment to the authorities.
However, whatever the direct effect of the announcements on our work, such exclusion is devastating for the country in the short term and long term. Its impact on those in need of humanitarian services will be appalling.
We urge the authorities to consider this impact and to find solutions that enable continuity of life-saving assistance across Afghanistan, in the interests of women and girls, and of all Afghans.
For more information, contact:
Afrhill Rances, +60 19 271 3641
Rachel Punitha, +60 19 791 3830,
Kingston, Jamaica – November 19, 2021. Adolescents overwhelmingly feel that they do not have the information needed to be safe from potential violence, abuse, and exploitation in climate related disasters. This is one of the main findings of “We Need to Do Better: Climate Related Disasters, Child Protection and Localizing Action in the Caribbean,” a recent study conducted by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
The report has revealed that even though climate related disasters affect each person in the region, children are particularly at risk. They make up a large portion of the population of the Caribbean and are most vulnerable to encountering violence, abuse, and exploitation in disaster settings, while systems to protect them do not always work. The study also highlights that there are no specific laws in place to protect children from violence, abuse and exploitation when disasters happen.
Gurvinder Singh, IFRC’s Child Protection Senior Advisor and one of the authors of the report, said:
“While children potentially have great leadership and innovation capabilities, unfortunately, their voices are rarely being sought out or heard. Furthermore, there is a huge deficit in meaningful opportunities for children to be engaged in decisions that affect them. This is especially prominent in the stages of preparing for and responding to disasters. Adolescents believe that even if they do participate, their opinions may not be taken seriously by adults.”
By putting the voices, perspectives, and ideas of children at the forefront, the report seeks to understand the generally unexplored relationships between climate related disasters and children’s concerns around violence, abuse, exploitation, and mental health challenges. It also sends a warning to governments and civic organisations to play a more active role in the promotion of and respect for the rights of the child, especially with regards to the issue of child abuse and the need for urgent effective prevention programmes.
Ariel Kestens, IFRC’s Head of Delegation for the Dutch-and English-speaking Caribbean, said:
“It is critical that governments enhance domestic laws, invest in child protection systems, improve local coordination, train local responders, include protection and climate change in school curriculum, and collect sex-, age- and disability-disaggregated data in disaster responses. The IFRC Network across the Caribbean stands ready to support them to continue striving to meet the best interests of each child affected by more and more frequent, and destructive climate related disasters.”
The report also recommends practical actions for the humanitarian sector, such as designing child-friendly communications, implementing community feedback mechanisms, including child protection in anticipatory action, integrating child protection across preparedness, assessments and planning, and creating spaces for children and adults to engage, support one another and find viable solutions to protection risks.
The study was based on discussions and an online survey with 198 adolescents ages 14-17 years in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago; interviews with 30 adults from different disaster and child protection agencies, and background research. It is part of the campaign “We Need to Do Better” by the IFRC to enhance protection of children in climate related disasters.
The full report may be accessed here. The adolescent summary of the report is available here.
For more information, please contact:
In Jamaica: Trevesa DaSilva | +876 818-8575 | [email protected]
In Panama: Susana Arroyo Barrantes | + 506 8416 1771 | [email protected]
For the IFRC to remain true to our principles, we must ensure we reach all people effectively and in a non-discriminatory and equitable manner. Our work must ensure dignity, access, participation and safety for all people affected by disasters and crises.
At the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), we believe that diversity is a fact, inclusion is an act. Through all of our work, we aim to protect and promote a positive change for humanity, based on our humanitarian values and Fundamental Principles.
By: Dr Michael Charles
Today South Africa marks Women’s Day. Much like the women being commemorated for the march to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956, women in southern Africa today may well hold the same flint that lights a “new movement” – climate change.
Southern Africa is one of the regions projected to experience the most serious consequences of global warming and the El Niño effect. In 2019, we experienced one of the worst disasters the region has ever seen - Cyclone Idai ravaged communities in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and continue to rebuild their lives.
Urgent action is needed to increase the region’s preparedness for natural disasters. It is only a matter of time until the next disaster strikes. Being female often automatically means that personal susceptibility to sexual and domestic violence, rape and assault in emergency situations is significantly heightened. Women experience additional difficulties because they are typically responsible for sourcing water and preparing food; caring for children, the injured, sick and elderly; and maintaining family and community cohesion.
Tackling climate change is, undoubtedly, women’s business. They have a vested interest in avoiding and mitigating the impacts of climate change. It is time that humanitarian actors and policy and decision-makers mainstream gender in policy and practice. It is not a “nice to do”; it is crucial to making real and sustainable differences in the lives of affected people.
In 1956, 200,000 South African women declared that enough was enough and acted to defend themselves and the unity and integrity of their families from restrictive laws that required them to carry a pass to reside and move freely in urban areas.
Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo! Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock! was the rallying cry of that day, used to signify the women’s unshakeable and unbreakable resolve in the face of adversity as they marched to the Union Building in Pretoria, and sparked change in the course of South Africa’s history.
As countries in southern Africa ramp up their disaster risk management and humanitarian organisations work to strengthen community recovery and resilience, women in southern Africa should not just be considered victims and survivors who need special protection and assistance. They are forces for change who can be relied on to represent themselves within their communities and at the highest decision-making levels.
I am always inspired by the women I meet responding in disasters, most recently in Cyclone Idai. Women like, Sonia, a volunteer who was working long hours to support women in a shelter, displaced by Cyclone Idai or Flora, who was affected herself by flooding but was dedicated to helping her neighbours rebuild their homes and their lives.
Happy Women’s Day, South Africa. May the flame that was lit in 1956 and the fire of women’s empowerment and participation that was built over the decades rage on.
Vancouver/Geneva, 31 May 2019 – The global head of the world’s largest humanitarian network will highlight the deadly consequences of gender inequality in the wake of disasters and conflicts, during a high-profile plenary session at the Women Deliver Conference.
Elhadj As Sy, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), will take part in a plenary session entitled The Power of Lift: Stepping up to use power for good, on Wednesday 5 June. He will call for a major shift in power dynamics during humanitarian emergencies by involving more women in leading, planning, and implementing emergency response operations. He will also highlight the work being done by women across the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in humanitarian response.
Mr Sy is available for interviews between 3-5 June 2019. He can also speak on a range of humanitarian issues, including the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where women and girls account for roughly 60 percent of those infected.