In conversation with Anne Reitsema – International Women’s Month

In conversation with Anne Reitsema – International Women’s Month

As we move into March and with it, International Women’s Month, we caught up with Medair CEO Anne Reitsema for a cup of coffee and a conversation about Medair’s work to support vulnerable women – and some of the women who have inspired her on her journey.


Q: Good morning, Anne. There are lots of angles from which to approach International Women’s Day / Month. When you think about it in the context of Medair, what comes to mind?

Doing the work we do at Medair, we know that women and children are the most vulnerable people when conflict or disaster strikes. In my role I have the privilege of visiting the countries where we are providing humanitarian assistance – and the joy of hearing first-hand from our colleagues about their work. When I speak with our female staff, it is clear that many face challenges to grow professionally and conduct their work as humanitarians, simply because they are women.

The thing that strikes me most, however, is the inspiration that they draw from each other. One female colleague said to me recently: “Her courage gives me courage – and my courage gives the next woman courage.” The comment stayed with me as a real, tangible example of how hope is infectious. We inspire each other because we see the hope brought by the courage, action and deeds of others.


Q: Tell us about some of the ways that Medair goes about supporting vulnerable women

One way in which Medair provides support in countries where it can be a real challenge to be a woman is through our care group model. It is truly heartwarming when we come alongside communities and help them to create helpful support networks that enable people to care for each other way beyond our presence.

Women in the communities we serve play a central role in providing care and support for others who, like them, have been affected by conflict or disaster and have a lot to process and cope with.

Setting up these community networks and ensuring that they are effective requires time, effort, compassion and tenacity. We train promoters who in turn equip ‘lead mothers’ to look after a group of neighbour women and help them to adopt healthy behaviours and practises such as breastfeeding, nutrition or mental health support. It is an approach that empowers and enables communities to care for each other.

I have been amazed by the eager commitment of the women in these communities to create and embed these platforms and frameworks for care, healing and bringing people together. They give up their time to do this because they can see the positive impact – and that they are saving lives through their care and prevention efforts.


Q: How does Medair consider the safety of women when planning our programming?

In the countries where we operate, there are numerous ways in which women and girls can find themselves in danger. Take the regular task of collecting water, for example, which usually falls to the female members of a household.

In our programming, when considering where to put a water collection point, we always take into consideration not only the best place to access water according to hydrogeological maps, but perhaps more importantly the distances that women need to walk to access it, often alone and without protection.

We always look at our programming – including cash assistance – through a ‘protection lens’ that prioritises the safety of women and minimises danger. This includes organising ways for communities to move together in large groups, or providing culturally-appropriate solutions for women in regions where they are expected to be accompanied.


Q: Tell us about a female beneficiary who has inspired you

There are so many! But I’ll go with the most recent. I have just returned from Afghanistan and while visiting one of Medair’s healthcare clinics that provides health and nutrition support for hundreds of people each day, I had time to speak with some of the mothers there. I was particularly moved by one amazing woman, who had delivered her baby only three days before and had walked a mile and a half to the clinic to get help for her child’s infection.

At Medair we talk about going the extra mile to help people. What struck me on this occasion was that she had gone beyond the extra mile, making the three-mile round trip on foot, driven by a mother’s love for her child. That energy and willingness to fight for the value of her child’s life really inspired me. It was a privilege to meet the women at the clinic in their time of need and truly motivating to see that reality.


Q: Tell us about a female colleague who has inspired you

Over the years of my working with Medair, I have met so many remarkable women who exude so much genuine care and compassion for people. Many of my current colleagues immediately come to mind and I can only apologise for not being able to name you all!

Take Becks from our Emergency Response Team, for example. I am in awe of the way she interacts with people in the communities we serve, living love in a very tangible and self-sacrificial way. The way she focuses on the needs of others and serves at the drop of a hat is on another level and frankly quite beautiful. Her faith is as authentic as it is inspiring – an important part of her strength.

Or Noor, whose positive energy and good vibes pervade everything she does. The language learning cafe she personally runs in Gaziantep brings people across divides together in a supportive and encouraging environment. In short it’s a fabulous, inspiring place to be – in no small part because of her loving personality and natural ability as a reconciler.

Or perhaps Sadia who I met in Darfur, whose love I still feel right now. An amazing woman who opened the doors to her home and took in orphans, she made us better people every day just by being herself -an unswervingly joyous and positive character. I can still remember the warmth of her hugs and even the smell of her perfume.

There are so many more women who have inspired me on my journey and as I mentioned, I can only apologise for not being able to name everyone here.

I will however highlight a couple of essential characteristics shared by all. Their strength is in how they treat others. The love and care they show is evidence of their hope. I recently heard someone say, “the person with the most hope will always have the most influence.” It is not status or position that allow us to have the most impact. It is the quality of our relationships, who we be and how we notice and treat others.

You all know who you are. Thank you!