Senior Advocacy Advisor | ActionAid UK
What does a typical day at work look like?
I recently started a new role as a Senior Advocacy Advisor at ActionAid UK, so I am still getting a sense of what the typical day is going to look like. ActionAid is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) and it has recently restructured to implement a new strategy called “Together, with Women and Girls” to work with women and girls on development and humanitarian projects.
I have worked with women’s rights organisations in the past, so I know how significant it is for an organisation as big as ActionAid to aim to become a feminist one. It has implications for everything, including recruitment, supply chains, management processes, communications and advocacy.
At the moment I’m preparing for the upcoming humanitarian affairs segment of the UN Economic and Social Affairs Council (ECOSOC) as well as a finalising a report assessing the extent to which the international humanitarian sector has reformed itself over the past two years. We are looking at women’s participation in humanitarian response, and cash in emergency relief. It is really exciting for me because it has been a while since I have worked on humanitarian issues specifically.
What changes have you noticed since the beginning of your career regarding the integration of gender equality in foreign policy?
Overall, it’s getting better. It is hard now to find a big aid agency that does not have some kind of gender adviser, but that wasn’t the case five years ago. There are definitely more opportunities for working on women’s rights, which says a lot about its growing importance in development and foreign policy. Policies have improved too. The UK government requires organisations to show that they consider gender equality in order to receive funding, so now there are more women’s rights and gender equality experts to support this work.
We are seeing a big wake up call in the development sector in the reports of sexual abuse and exploitation, and the consequences of patriarchal structures, management, behaviours and attitudes. This will make awareness and discussion of gender equality solutions more likely and more necessary, I think it is echoing in the broader foreign policy community.
Part of the solution is fixing the lack of diversity in foreign policy, and I think this will have big implications on shaping foreign policy. The gender balance is getting better; movements like #allmenpanels has helped make very public how foreign policy is dominated by men, but not because the women aren’t there. It just means the organisers didn’t look for them. The diversity issue is slowly broadening from gender to other intersections.
You mentioned intersectionality, but too often it feels that “more women” means “more white women”. What is your experience?
We still have a long way to go. I am definitely not the only woman in the room but I am usually the only person of colour. Considering how much the sector is concentrated in London, it really does not represent the city’s diversity. I am conscious of that. I have been in focus groups about international women’s rights issues where the majority of participants were western-born women. Seeing international organisations explicitly use gender equality and feminism in policy language or take a real stance on women’s participation in the foreign policy space is challenging us all to be better. The fact that we can use the term “feminist” in the foreign policy circle is massive. It is getting better, but it’s important that we keep on advocating for intersectional feminism and not letting that slide back.
What is your advice to a woman looking to work in gender, peace and security?
I have met many intelligent young women who really want to make a difference and that is very exciting. Enthusiasm is important because we can sometimes become cynical when working on these issues on a daily basis. When it comes to policy and advocacy, things can move quite slowly, and you can end up working on the same issue for years. When I started looking for a job, knowing what career opportunities were available from the outside was difficult as LinkedIn wasn’t a big thing. Now, we have access to see who is hiring and what jobs are out there. LinkedIn is a useful tool to help you connect with women already working in the sector. I think speaking to as many people as possible can help you figure out what kinds of roles are out there and what sorts of experience will help.
One of your first roles working in women’s rights was volunteering for sexual violence survivors. How did you end up there?
At the time I was interning for Amnesty International, and I read reports about sexual violence against women. It was also around the time that the Foreign Office launched its initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict, so the issue garnered a lot of headlines. I started to ask myself what sort of skills I would need to work on this subject. I looked online to see where I could get training or volunteering positions in South London, and the nearest Rape Crisis centre happened to host the national helpline.
I applied for a volunteering role and got accepted to attend the training. Initially, I was focused on the skills I could gain. At the end of my first day, all my expectations were subverted because it was just the most real and gut-wrenching thing I had ever done. We had been told that only a few of us would make it through because they needed to be 100% sure that none of us would cause harm to anyone, including ourselves and the organisation. Training lasted 12 weeks and was incredibly comprehensive and tough. I ended up volunteering there for 3 years.
I volunteered alongside my full-time advocacy job at Saferworld. Even though it felt like the two organisations were miles apart, I developed a greater understanding of the impacts and consequences of sexual violence, which connected to my job at Saferworld. It taught me to stress the importance of needing the right expertise and using the right vocabulary. Having that experience helped to bolster my confidence and keep me grounded; I feel I am better at my job thanks to the work I have done with survivors. It helped me focus on where I want to go ever since.
How did you become interested in international affairs and women’s rights?
I studied History at Durham University. During my third year, I focused on history and memory in East Asia, specifically in the Asia-Pacific war. I first encountered the subject of women and conflict when I read about Korean women enslaved by the Japanese army. I couldn’t stop looking for more information about what had happened since, because nowhere in my readings did I find any sign that they had gotten justice. When I was in South Korea the summer before my third year, I read in my guide book that there were still protests happening outside the Japanese embassy every week, so I attended one. I learned a lot during that period about international women’s rights. I knew I wanted to do something about it but I didn’t know where to look.
I wish I got involved with the feminist organisations that existed in my university. At the time, I didn’t identify as a feminist, because I didn’t have any feminist education. University was a period of self-development for me, particularly as a woman of colour evolving in a white-dominated culture. I wish I had joined the Amnesty Society or the Feminist Society because that would have helped me think through career options as I left university.
Would you give that advice to a young woman looking to start a career in foreign policy?
Not necessarily. I am conscious that not everyone has the means to follow my ‘advice’ to work in this sector, so joining societies at university may not be an option. I would like to see the sector become more diverse, but it may be difficult for some to get involved if they have to work a part-time job to support their studies. I don’t want them to think “since I can’t do that, that type of career might not be for me and I should just do something else”. I don’t want to put anyone off.
Luckily, there are organisations proactively looking for women who haven’t had the chance to do internships during holidays, to go on a gap year, or travel. If I was in a position to hire, that is what I would do. I don’t mean to dismiss those who have the opportunity to do these extracurricular activities, but we have to give more thought to those that come from less privileged or advantaged backgrounds, especially if you have the power create more access for women wanting to come into the sector.