09 Feb 2024
Podcast Ep 5: Hannah Jay’s hope for gender equality

For Hannah Jay, the inspiring power of women and girls has fueled her life’s work. As a gender expert in the humanitarian sector for more than a decade, Hannah has dedicated her career to addressing gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts. 

She’s worked extensively across Asia and the Pacific, supporting a wide range of organisations including the United Nations, the World Bank and Save the Children. Hannah is also an associate trainer on RedR Australia’s courses, and a researcher and investigator for international crimes against children. 

In this episode, Hannah discusses the incredible power of adolescent girls and where the world is at with gender equality. She also talks frankly about the challenges of being a woman in the humanitarian sector, how to safely manage a disclosure of violence, and how she cares for her own mental health in this challenging career. 

If you’re in Australia and you need resources or support, please visit 1800respect.org.au or call 1800 737 732 for their free, 24-hour counselling service. For those outside Australia, please contact your national counselling and support service. 

Host: Sally Cunningham     

Guest: Hannah Jay 

Producer, engineer and composer: Jill Farrar 

You can join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook


SALLY: In today's episode, we'll be talking about gender-based violence, which I know can be distressing. So please feel free to skip this episode, or listen to it at another time. If you're in Australia and you need resources or support, please visit 1800respect.org.au or call one 1800 737 732 for their free, 24-hour counseling service. For listeners outside of Australia, please contact your national counseling and support service. And please, look after yourself. This Humanitarian Conversations podcast was recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, also known as Melbourne, Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and we acknowledge and seek to champion the continued connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to land waterways and skies. And we pay our respects to all First Nations people whose communities we work in across the world. Hello, and welcome to Humanitarian Conversations, a RedR Australia podcast which explores what it means to be humanitarian in today's world. I'm Sally Cunningham. Today on Humanitarian Conversations, I'm chatting with gender expert Hannah Jay. For more than a decade, Hannah has dedicated her career to addressing gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts. She's worked extensively across Asia and the Pacific from Kiribati to Bangladesh, Cambodia, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Nauru. She has supported a wide range of organisations with her expertise, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and Save the Children. As a RedR Australia roster member, Hannah has deployed to South Sudan as a gender-based violence specialist with the United Nations Population Fund. And she is an experienced associate trainer on RedR Australia's courses. Hunter is also a researcher and investigator for international crimes against children. Hannah, it's wonderful to have you here today on Humanitarian Conversations. 

HANNAH: Thanks, Sally. It's great to be here. 

SALLY: Gender has come up a couple of times already on Humanitarian Conversations, particularly relating to the challenges of being a female working in the humanitarian sector. What are your thoughts on this? And how can we make the path easier for more women to join the humanitarian sector?  

HANNAH: I think, in the same way that the localisation agenda requires a total rethink of the system that we have in place, I think we need that in terms of addressing what are the patriarchal underpinnings of the aid sector. So we know that this is a system that is not built by women or for women. And that greatly impacts the quality of the work in terms of the response. But it also greatly impacts how it is set up for women who want to work in this area. I think there has been progress made, it's definitely a more open and a safer place for women to work now than in the past. A few key things to creating a sector where women not only can begin their careers, but can also progress their careers, is having measures in place that address that disparity in leadership. So in fact, we know that if you look at early-career or junior ranks in the humanitarian sector, it is really full of women. We have a lot of amazing young women who are doing this work. But that is not reflected in leadership. And who's making those decisions has a really significant impact on the ability for women to continue in this sector. You know, as an extension of that, it's also recognising the diversity of women in the humanitarian sector, and the different types of leadership and the different roles that we may have. So something that I think about a lot is addressing this international-staff national-staff divide that many organisations have, and providing opportunities for women to begin their career and progress their career in their own country, and to fulfill those critical leadership roles within their own country. You know, that's for many reasons, and many women will choose an international career, but some don't want to. And I think that is limiting, that we have such a stark divide around those profiles. Really linked to that, and while we have seen a lot of improvement, is the need for the sector to better support caregiving responsibilities. And we know that these fall disproportionately to women. And we also know that there's greater and much harsher societal scrutiny on women in terms of their role as a parent, or you know, even as a daughter, for example, if you have caring responsibilities for older parents. And I've seen some great discussions in the various forums where we all gather as humanitarians. You know, the Aid Mama's noticeboard and Women In Aid, and maybe you've seen them too, Sally. But it's great to see that organisations are putting in better measures around breastfeeding, that there's some organisations who are supporting having child care on missions; so that if you do travel, you can take your baby with you, where it's possible. And we've certainly seen improvements in maternity and paternity leave, and how that is also being shared between mothers and fathers as well. But I think there is still a long way to go. And there's still a lot of barriers—for women who want to be parents or who have other caregiving responsibilities—to stay in the sector. And I know, for myself, it meant choosing a consulting career versus being in the field. There are ways to remain in the sector, but there are so many barriers. The responsibility is with humanitarian organisations to improve. One thing that I'll just add too, is the recognition that the sector really does need to improve in regards to keeping women safe. And what I mean by that is, you know, we have seen the Aid Too movement, which was in response to the Me Too movement, and a recognition that there have been a lot of failings in the past, around preventing perpetrators within the aid community, and preventing violence—perpetrated by humanitarians to the community, as well as to other humanitarians. And we see this shift as well, from this pure kind of physical safety training perspective that a lot of organisations do. You know, of course, there's risks around going into a conflict zone, for example. But there are very real risks around sexual violence and sexual abuse; of being in circumstances where you're living in a compound, where you're living in a context where there is little access to police force, for example. And again, it comes back to what we've seen, which you know, is past impunity for actions. So I think that's critical. If you can't feel safe in your work, then then people will leave the sector. 

SALLY: Absolutely. These are unfortunately stories that we're familiar with. But it's important to talk about it. 

HANNAH: I think it's really encouraging to see those that are starting their humanitarian career. We do have so many amazing young women who are entering the sector. And I think there is a shift starting to happen. And as we see more women in leadership roles, we will see a safer and nicer environment for women in in humanitarian sector. 

SALLY: I'm really pleased to hear that, Hannah. How did you decide on a humanitarian career and gender yourself, and what inspires you to keep growing and developing in this space? 

HANNAH: I've been really lucky to have a lot of inspiring women in my life. Whilst I was studying at university, I was fortunate enough to spend some time working with refugee communities in Victoria, through one of the women's health organisations, and to spend time with and hear the stories and understand the resilience and strength of those women, that was really impactful for me. And then from there, I started my international career in the Pacific. And again, it was the experience of being surrounded by strong women who gave a lot to me to in my career. And from there, I really had an interest in and pursued work in gender equality, and in the prevention and response to gender-based violence. 

SALLY: So talking about prevention of gender-based violence, are there particular risk factors that make it more likely to occur? 

HANNAH: We know that gender-based violence happens in every country, in every context around the world. But there are particular risk factors associated with humanitarian crises. For example, in complex emergencies, there may be the breakdown in the rule of law. Increasing inter-communal violence can also lead to an increase in gender-based violence. Things such as financial and other stresses on families that come as a result of all types of crisis, you know, is really linked to spikes in domestic violence. But in addition to that, in crisis, we also see that there's an erosion of the protective mechanisms that might have prevented some of this violence from occurring in the first place. So as a result of displacement, not being around your neighbours and usual community can itself be a risk factor. Things like the closure of schools, and not having family supports in place. We also know that not having services for gender-based violence is a risk factor in itself; having nowhere to go. As well, when we have a history of impunity for violence, it's a really significant risk factor. 

SALLY: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Now, I'm sure over the many years of experience that you have, you have some really great stories. Are you able to share with us a rewarding program you've been a part of? We'd love to hear about it. 

HANNAH: Reflecting on the progress that I've seen over the last 15 years, I think we have come so far. And there are some really great programs that stand out. For me, some of the most powerful and really encouraging and rewarding work that I do is with girls. And the power of adolescent girls is really incredible. And to see the types of changes that you can make in their lives is really amazing. My current program is working with adolescents in Vanuatu. And hearing from girls themselves about their lives, and also their enthusiasm and optimism for the future, and where they really see the need for critical change. A really cool project that I did alongside Plan International was a number of years ago, looking at complex emergencies and looking at the experiences of adolescent girls and giving them a voice. This was hugely impactful, I think, because we saw a shift to understanding the nuances in services and support for younger girls, adolescent girls and for women. We heard from girls about what their experiences were living through crisis, the violence that they had experienced, the challenges that they had experienced in accessing education. But we also heard what they really wanted was opportunities for the future. And they wanted to maintain optimism and strive for a better life, even living in some of the most challenging conditions: in displaced camps in South Sudan, in the West Africa Crisis, in the Rohingya camps. Seeing that optimism—what are the positive coping skills that are there? And what how can we support better in a tailored way? 

SALLY: We're going to shift to something that's possibly a little bit more personal. So much of your work is in a very sensitive area, especially in a humanitarian context. Do you find people disclose incidents of harassment or abuse to you privately? Because you are that expert? 

HANNAH: Yeah, Sally, I think working in addressing gender-based violence, you're definitely signaling yourself as a safe person. And I have been in situations where I've had colleagues come to me for support in the field when they had—unfortunately had—experienced violence. And it can be a really important role that you play in contexts where there may not be services that accessible. But I think it's really critical to recognise that my response would be to support that person on an individual level, and not to necessarily provide them with counseling or support, but to refer them to services that they critically need. I have had experiences where I show up on a mission, and I have three or four people requesting meetings with me, because they've seen my title, and they want to speak to someone about what they're going through, whether that be historical experiences, or that be something that they're dealing with, you know, during that moment, and they want support. I've had circumstances where I have been in hospital preparing for the birth of my son, and I've had nurses disclose to me their experience of violence when they find out my job. And I think it's really critical for anyone in humanitarian response to be able to handle a disclosure in a safe way, particularly if you're in management or HR. And to be able to provide some information and that initial support of where people can get help. And we can all be that person. You don't need the more technical skills to do that. And I know that something RedR has embedded in their HEAT training is being able to safely receive and respond to a disclosure of gender-based violence. And it is really critical, because we know that actually that first response—and I might be the first person or you might be the first person that they have ever told of that experience. And the way that we respond to them is so critical to whether they'll get help and continue on their journey— 

SALLY: To feel safe.  

HANNAH: Yeah, towards safety. So it is something that happens and it's really hard every time. I don't want to pretend like it's easy. Even though I've devoted my career to that, it's always incredibly difficult. 

SALLY: Yeah, I can imagine, I believe you. And hopefully we can enable a few more people to have the courage to speak out, as well as be the support person for someone who needs them at that time. So how do you manage your own mental health and well-being when working in this challenging sector, and in this particular role? 

HANNAH: In a way we're really fortunate working on gender-based violence. We owe a lot to the women's movement and their approach to managing mental health and well-being, which has always been really supportive. You know, having a strong focus on debriefing, having a strong focus on our own well-being and mental health, which may not have necessarily been so prominent in other areas of humanitarian response. There's a really strong network of women who work in gender-based violence in humanitarian sector who really support each other. And I found this really helpful and beneficial, you know, being able to discuss professional challenges with people who get it, who understand. And I guess beyond this, I really try and embrace fun and lightness in the rest of my life.  

SALLY: Good plan.  

HANNAH: Yeah, I have a really, really serious job. There's not many opportunities for laughing. But there are a lot of opportunities for laughing and fun with my five-year-old or with my friends. So I try and embrace that where I can. 

SALLY: Yeah, that's a really good plan. I'm glad you've got that network as well. Because having people who can relate to your own experience, when it is intense and private, I think that's really, really valuable. 

HANNAH: And I've also found, working as a consultant, you really need to build and focus on maintaining those networks when you're not embedded in the organisation, when you're changing contracts every few months. Being able to have other consultants that you can touch base with and chat to, is really critical. 

SALLY: People need people. So what kind of qualities do you think someone needs to work in this area in particular? 

HANNAH: Yeah, I think, you know, with all humanitarian work, obviously, there's a fair amount of resilience that you need to continue in the work. But I think with work on gender-based violence, one of the main things is humility. So all of our technical knowledge, all of our experience is nothing if the approaches that we put forward do not work for women and girls. So being able to take a step back and recognise that this is a response for people, and it's about humanity. It's about the needs of survivors, so that we can take stock and adjust our approach, I think, is really critical. Being able to listen to the needs of survivors and adjust. And I guess also being adaptable, recognising that we're continuing to learn what works and what doesn't work. And, you know, there are different and new approaches all the time.  

SALLY: Work in progress. 

HANNAH: Yeah. 

SALLY: I think that's a very positive way to look at it as well. And encouraging to work in a space that just is constantly striving to improve and get better. How do people respond when you meet them outside of the sector? So like, if you tell them at a dinner party the work that you do, what's the response that you get? 

HANNAH: I mean, I often just say I work in humanitarian response kind of generally, rather than delving into what I specifically do. And it's really a divided response. I think sometimes there's so much energy, and people are really excited to chat to you and learn about it. And then other times, people don't want to have any kind of political conversation or a deep conversation about what's happening in the world. I think, particularly after COVID, there was a bit of fatigue in the general population around hearing about crises. So I got that response sometimes. But yeah, I think when I do mention that I work in gender-based violence, I do prepare myself to see, you know, what is the reaction going to be? Sometimes there's a bit of, oh, that's a bit nonsense, or that's not important, a bit of resistance to that idea. So it is sometimes a bit of energy from my side to be willing to engage in that conversation, as well. 

SALLY: Yeah, that sounds a bit hard. 

HANNAH: Sometimes I just opt out.  

SALLY: And fair enough. 

HANNAH: And of course, you know, working in a sector where you're talking about violence as well, you have to be really mindful of other people's experience of violence, and particularly for gender-based violence. Because we know, you never know who's had some kind of similar experience. So I'm really mindful of that when I'm talking about it. 

SALLY: Yeah, that's fair enough. It is a different conversation that you have with people who work in the sector, as opposed to people who feel removed from it, so I can appreciate that. Finally, is there anything you wish people understood a bit better about gender equality? You have the floor. What do you wish they knew? Or what comes up a lot? Where are we at with gender equality and equity in humanitarian work? 

HANNAH: I think there's a really simple message about gender equality that is really important: any progress that we make towards gender equality benefits everyone. I would love a world where my small son is not told to get up and stop crying when he falls over. And that is a benefit of gender equality. And in the same way, I would love a world where all girls are supported to do what they would like to do. I would like a world where every home is safe, and every community is safe, and don't experience the violence that we work to prevent and respond to on an everyday basis. In terms of where we're at, I think there is a lot more space and resources and effort in the humanitarian world to really progress gender equality, with the recognition that it is not—and cannot be—a band-aid approach of doing the most minimal services, for example, on gender-based violence. And moving on, that we need to embed this work within every sector, and that we need to work in partnership with development actors, with peace and security actors, and with others around: how do we continue to progress gains in gender equality, even during times of crisis? And in fact, there may be opportunities to change some of those harmful social norms around gender that didn't exist in times of peace, for example. And I'm really positive and hopeful for the future of humanitarian response, I think, seeing these amazing women who are in leadership positions, seeing the recognition of diversity of leadership. You know, we know that embedding gender equality work in camp management makes for better refugee camps for everyone. We know that embedding it in food response, for example, means that more people have the food that they need that's appropriate for them and their families. So it is hugely important for achieving gender equality, is hugely important for all affected persons, and for everyone. 

SALLY: Well, I know I have to say I've learned a lot. And you've been really generous with what you've shared with us, and I leave with hope. Thank you for the work that you're doing. Thank you for persevering and sharing the experiences that you've had. 

HANNAH: Thanks, Sally. Yeah, I think that message of hope is a is a really great one, and something that I hold dear too. So thank you for having me. 

SALLY: Once again, if anything we've just talked about has raised concerns for you. We encourage you to visit 1800respect.org.au or call 1800 737 732 for their free, 24-hour counseling service. Or for listeners outside of Australia, please contact your national counseling and support service. You've been listening to Humanitarian Conversations, a podcast by RedR Australia. You can learn more about our work at redr.org.au and we invite you to join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. This episode was produced and engineered by Jill Farrar. I'm Sally Cunningham, thanks for listening.