Rita Rhayem: Paving the Way for Women in the Humanitarian World
What inspired you to embark on this journey in the Humanitarian Field?
It was by accident. When searching for a job, I never considered the humanitarian field, until I started working with “Doctors Without Borders”. I discovered a field that leads you into new roads and new sectors. I never imagined that the Humanitarian field required such professionalism and such a deep and diverse knowledge in sectors that I probably never knew about. It challenges the way you see life and forces you to shatter your egoism and preconceptions. It is a field where you change someone’s life (even a community) and get the chance to see this change. It helps you understand how really an act of kindness can be a life changer.
When you work in the humanitarian field, you become part of an international family where you work with people from different nationalities and backgrounds to advocate for a certain topic. You don’t work to increase the financial capital of a firm but to increase the quality of life of people who are complete strangers to you.
Over the years, what has been the role of women in shaping the humanitarian field?
The humanitarian field categorizes women as a vulnerable group, yet they are not. Women are the first responders to any crisis. They are the front-liners providing food assistance, shelter, health services…. and most importantly they are very vigilant and can work on preventive measures to reduce the impact of any crisis.
Over the years, the shift from victim to responders have started. Women have demonstrated an ability to understand people’s needs and shape the humanitarian response accordingly. Their presence in the field plays an important role in recognizing and respecting local culture, in building and preserving the peace process, in delivering the services in a more effective and transparent way, and so much more. Introducing gender to the humanitarian field helped shape not only the women’s portrayal but as well as the response: more than ever, protection is an important issue along with safeguarding and the use of technologies to advance human rights.
Tell us about your journey with Doctors Without Borders. In what ways did it affect your calling to pursue humanitarian work?
It was like opening a Pandora box of emotions and curiosity. I had the preconceptions that the humanitarian work is completely based on volunteering and there is no career path in this field. Doctors Without Borders changed all of that. I worked with people coming from different countries to help my country. I learned that standards and professionalism are a condition sine qua non to help people. I was deeply touched every time I walked into a completely destroyed village in the South of Lebanon and met resilient people who refused to leave their houses and wanted to build it again. It was a mix of emotions; discovering a field with no limit while at the same time helping my own people.
How did your experience with Sphere impact your thinking on humanitarian crises? What was your role in setting the standards to be applied in humanitarian response?
When a humanitarian crisis occurred, people tend to think that they are the only one to experience trauma. We forget that there are crises happening across the globe. This is the first reminder while learning Sphere standards. Then you discover how standards and principles should be adopted during emergencies to preserve people’s dignity, to protect vulnerable groups, to make sure that no one is left behind, and most importantly, to learn to listen to people’s needs while respecting their culture and values.
Sphere is a universal way of dealing with emergencies. Humanitarian agencies will be then talking the same language and avoiding as much as possible duplication.
“Accreditation of NGOs Health Centers” is the name of your book. What inspired you to write this book? Can you tell us more about it? What level of education and awareness will this book bring in to the medical & humanitarian fields combined?
The right to health is an important part of human rights, but what about the quality of the service? Privileged or not,everyone without exception has the right to access quality health care services; accreditation is the guarantee. Accreditation is associated with better performance, continuous quality improvement, all while allowing beneficiaries to be considered as stakeholders.
This book was published when there was no accreditation system in Lebanon for the primary health care centers and aimed to raise awareness in the humanitarian and academic field about the importance of accreditation.
Where are we now in terms of establishing non-biased communities?
Unfortunately, as long as we are still in the emotional phase, we are very far. Our decisions are directed by emotions and tradition. We still take things for their face value and refuse to open up to other ideas. Until we start to question what we know as basic and what we are fed through media and culture, we still have a long way to go.
Where does our responsibility – as human beings – lie in identifying bias and taking the needed measures to raise awareness and positively impact mindsets?
If you don’t know that you are sick you won’t seek treatment. The same goes for gender discrimination. If you don’t recognize and admit gender discrimination you won’t try to find solutions.
This is the first step but the most difficult one: recognizing the bias. Gender discrimination is so embedded in our society that we don’t see it anymore, we even sometimes replicate it on a daily basis. The advertisements that replicate gender roles, literature and movies representing women as the victims who need to be saved by a very masculine man, the news portraying refugees’ women and their struggle to survive but never portraying vulnerable refugees men…There are other forms of discrimination that are so visible yet we choose to turn the blind eye especially if we thought that this will never happen to us; this is the case of human trafficking, gender based violence…
Talking about gender discrimination is the first step towards seeking treatment and solving this issue.
What is our role – as women – in bringing change and support for other women who face these struggles? What was your role in paving the way for this change?
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” — Maya Angelou
Angelou’s quote summarizes women’s situation. Every time a woman is breaking the glass ceiling, every time a woman ventures in a field “reserved only for men” she will be the one facing all sorts of discrimination and reshaping the culture towards more acceptance. Those women have an important role to play by telling their stories, sharing their experience and coaching and supporting other women. I think one of the important steps to change mindsets and support women is telling stories of success and setbacks, and writing about struggles and achievements so that no woman will feel alone in her path. Let us talk!
How crucial is it that we, not only empower women in their journeys, but also engage our male counterparts in the process to ensure optimal awareness, change, and growth in any entity?
Gender balance fight is not women’s fight only. It should be as well men’s fight. If women are only empowered, we are then using the same tool that led to gender imbalance at the first place. This fight shouldn’t use the same old “masculine” tool that creates the gender gap. At the opposite, men and women should be empowered in this fight. Only when men are introduced to gender discrimination, when men are aware of the importance of women’s role in society will they join the fight. We need more powerful men as gender champions because they will change the norms within the male establishment.
In addition, focusing only on empowering women is neglecting an important part of men who also need empowering. Male is not the norm, we need to deconstruct this idea, change our mindset, and recognize that masculinity can sometimes hurt men.
Men have a longer journey in joining our fight. They need first to deconstruct social norms, question what they have been taught and the attributes that have been linked to masculinity so they can be open to a new way of seeing things.
Can you talk about one woman who has significantly impacted your life? Do you have a role model?
I am a true believer that everyone should be their own role model even at their worst days. There are many women who inspired me by their bravery, creativity… but I believe that everyone’s life is different, the situation we face, the way we react, the education we have received… all of those factors shaped the way we understand life. There are moments in history that marked me but I never aspire to have a role model.
What is the importance of compassion in times of crisis?
It is the quality of successful people. We need strength to develop it and show it in a world where emotions and empathy are sometimes considered as weakness. With no compassion, we are not humans, we are robots. Compassion should be considered as one of the best emotional intelligence as it helps the giver to understand that no one is safe from life’s unfortunate events. It also helps the receiver to accept help with a sense that their dignity is preserved.
What is your proudest achievement? & your biggest challenge?
Publishing my book and succeeding in breaking gender stereotypes by managing Caritas Lebanon.
If you can change the world, what would you change & how?
I would erase fanatism and instill a culture of tolerance. I would start working with children and change their mindset. By accepting all cultures, religions, races, ethnicity… we will discover the richness of humanity and uncover different knowledge, traditions and ways of thinking. We will abolish the “other” When we do thisand we will discover humanity in its best form.
To know more about Rita, visit this link.