Natasha Leite

Regional Security and Governance Coordinator for East Africa and the Great Lakes I Danish Refugee Council, Danish Demining Group







What does the Danish Demining Group (DDG) do?

The DDG is a specialized unit with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) that works on issues related to peace, security and demining, but also on governance and social accountability. The DRC and the DDG both focus on displacement, but the DDG takes a broader community based approach. The DDG's focus is less on the emergency elements of displacement and more focused on addressing the the root causes for violence. It goes beyond the refugee populations and their specific needs to working more holistically with the community and their overall needs. This really identifies and targets more needs and vulnerabilities, opportunities for dialogue, and strengthens the structures that already exist. We have strong protection teams that deal with individual cases and the specific needs and vulnerabilities of population groups as internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returnees, children, young people, women, people with disabilities, and so on. We work with structural factors and local mechanisms to try and improve social cohesion and accountability, and we ensure the community overall has better access to justice and security provisions.

In the broader refugee work, I am focused on dialogue between host communities and displacement-affected people (IDPs, refugees, returnees) or supporting their participation in peace building and decision-making processes.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

What's interesting and challenging about this work is that there is no such thing as a typical workday, because I work with different countries that have different demands, each day can be very different. I often work on guidelines, manuals and practice tools for the local teams to approach a specific topic or help them with policy guidance on youth, gender, or dialogue with displacement affected communities. On other days I provide training to the training team or to stakeholders in a refugee camp, or to our own staff. Sometimes the training is on specific tools for conflict sensitivity, it all depends on the demand of that particular moment. When I'm on mission there is a lot more training and effort trying to deduct what specific needs are there that we can build upon or create a proposal about. When I'm not on a specific mission where I'm tasked with a particular training, I'm usually in the office, troubleshooting or replying to e-mails, going to meetings, Skype calls - your standard office work.

Tell me about your last mission.

The DDG is starting a project in Somalia on durable solutions for the districts of Mogadishu, Dolow, Baidoa and Kismayo. In advance of the launch, I went to Dollow to help with the training. I went to do the presentation and validation of the conflict analysis of the particular location with focus on displacement, gender, and aid. We also had a sensitivity awareness session to detect the challenges we would see and brainstorm strategies to improve the program. Then we coordinated with the teams on their next projects and how all those activities interlinked.

It was a short five day mission, and now I'm back. Tomorrow I'm heading to Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, to give a training on dialogue between host communities and refugees and on how our local partners and key stakeholders can engage in a more positive way. We will talk about ways to structure the dialogue process in a way that makes sense and where everybody feels that it is a safe space.

Do missions usually last 5 days?

It depends, usually missions tend to be 10 days to two weeks. Because I have so many countries under my region, I prefer longer trainings. It usually takes me a while before I get back to the same location again, so in a longer training I can pack more information on a mission.

How do you take care of yourself when you are traveling?

I do a lot of yoga, but I also make sure I have a sense of routine to do the key things I always do. It's important for me to keep in touch with friends and family, and to realize when you are reacting disproportionately to a particular issue or when you need a break. It's about acknowledging when you had too much, which is never easy. I think a lot of people in this field tend to be workaholics. The system itself actually encourages this kind of behavior, especially when you are in a compound it becomes easy not to take care of yourself, but it is important to make an extra effort. That is why I always carry my yoga mat. I have Netflix. I always carry a book with me that I really like. I think everyone in this field could use therapy or some sort of mental health hygiene, whether it's meditation or something else. It's important because the issues we deal with in a day are quite substantial. It's easy to lose track of oneself.

What did you mean by 'the system encourages this kind of behavior'?

In the field of humanitarian and conflict work, you almost feel compelled to work all the time. In my case my supervisor is very relaxed, he is the one that always tells me to take a break, and he is good with work-life balance. However, it is difficult, especially in a compound. It seems that everyone around you is doing some sort of work, so balance isn't always there.

Do you live in a compound right now?

Right now I'm in an in-between-situation. I do have an apartment in Nairobi where I have most of my things, and it's where I can stopover between different destinations in the region, however I'm mostly traveling. My work permit is in Somalia, so that's where I spend a big chunk of my time, but I'm also often in Uganda and Tanzania. I will be in Congo for a month later in the year. So I live on the road a lot.

Where I keep my wardrobe and my things, serves as a home for me. I feel at home in my apartment in Nairobi, but also back in Brazil. I can also be comfortable in Somalia or Uganda. but before I had my place in Nairobi I was constantly traveling around with all my things, and that wasn't good. Having one place for my stuff, even if it's just to go there to change a suitcase, is good for quality of life in general.

How often do you go to Brazil?

Once or twice a year. I try to see my family in between destinations, but I'm far away from them. I am actually going home at the end of the week, so that will be good. It's so nice to go home, because it's so cold in Nairobi. I'm not enjoying that right now.

Were you guided in your career path or did you walk the path by yourself?

I mostly did it by myself. I grew up in Rio de Janeiro when it was quite violent, it was in the midst of the gang warfare with a lot of homicides at the time. 125 homicides per 100.000 inhabitants. Now it's 12-17 per 100.000, so that's quite a difference. Violence was something we talked about normally in school. It was an inherent part of our lives.

My younger sister grew up after policy changes had impacted the situation. It wasn't part of her life anymore. She had a much more normal childhood. When she was in high school she discussed boys, boybands, and what to do next in life . That was not what we discussed in high school. I realized that was not normal, and that there were solutions tha could come from changing policies and practices within governments, but also in communities. I started working with the Red Cross in the slums in Rio to work more on this element of community security and community development. Later, while working at an non-governmental organization (NGO), I had a good mentor. From him I learned about work ethics, but also how to structure policy briefs, the importance of research, the importance of prevention of armed violence programs, how to build better programs, and systems of arms control. It was a huge learning process, and I was very lucky I started with something I enjoyed and that I had good mentors along the way.

You wrote to Women in Foreign Policy (WiFP) that it would have helped you to have WiFP when you were first starting out. Could you elaborate on that?

For me specifically, it wasn't necessarily about how to start. I was quite lucky in that sense. I had a very straightforward path of entrance, as I worked in the Red Cross and an NGO, but it was in a very masculine environment where I was sometimes the only woman. I had a lot of doubts about my level of assertiveness in meetings, whether I should actually express my point of view. Women are not socialized to do so, and it hinders our development. It was a struggle for me to assert myself, to acknowledge my achievements, to be vocal. I didn't know if I needed to be more or less proactive, whether I was taking on more than I could actually deliver.

That's the beauty of having these kinds of communities, these women spaces, because we can be very open about the struggles we face. The WiFP newsletter is really good because it shows me different models of women working. It's not just one type of person working on one topic. Not all of us need to be high security advisors. There are so many topics and so many regions, and there is a richness to it. You can see yourself in all these different people and find new mentors or paths. Maybe one's story is relatable to you, and I think there is something very powerful in that. When I grew up there were not that many stories about women in foreign policy or security. There were only male dominated narratives and spaces.

You are in is mostly male dominated field. What would help to change that?

There are a lot of structural changes necessary for access to work in peace or in demining. At the DDG we have had several discussions on this at our gender roundtables. We try to make the overall work environment more welcoming to women that want to work with us. For example, right now the way we write job descriptions is not gender neutral or culturally sensitive. As an institution we are trying to improve that. In my particular organization we have mostly national and local staff, so in many ways we have to overcome a lot of stereotypes and gender norms. This is not seen as work for women; there is a gender normative view on who gets to do what types of jobs, and we want to change that, but need to work a lot more on it. We need better accountability systems, and more flexible and accommodating structures for women that want to work and have a family, and we need to acknowledge the importance of that in many cultures. If you want to have more women in organizations, than you have to accommodate some of the gender norms that are still there, such as providing daycare and transportation facilities so women have ways to get home safely.

There is a long way to go in this sector before we can be a place where everybody feels like their basic needs are being met in terms of being comfortable with work hours, transportation, balancing work and life, and general accountability processes.

What is the biggest challenge you encountered in your career?  

For me it was knowing when to quit, and when to let go. I was in one particular work situation that was not great and there was a lot of internal politics. I was trying to push through it, but it was not working. In the end I quit, which was not easy. It felt terrifying at the moment, but it was definitely the right decision at that stage in my life. I just kept asking myself whether it was right to quit or if I should wait for it to get better. I wondered if it was genuinely a bad situation or if it was a learning curve.

I have some clear red lines, and I went past those. I allowed that because it was a project that was close to my heart and I really wanted it to work. I guess that was the other lesson, that just because you really want something to work, does not mean it's going to. It's important to protect yourself in the end.

What type of advice do you have for women wanting to work in your field?

Please do not apply for a job in the hopes of transferring to the job you really want. Most of the time you get stuck in a cycle you cannot get away from. If you want to be in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) or you want to work with refugees, or on security stabilization, then apply to those particular fields. Don't start with monitoring and evaluation or fundraising and try to go into a different field from there. It can happen, and it can be helpful, but usually people get sidelined or get pigeonholed in that particular area and never transition to the area they really want to go. Apply to the topic or the issue you wish to work for. I understand that we have bills to pay, and there are people depending on us, so sometimes compromises need to be made, but don’t start compromising on what you want to do if you don’t have to.