Erica Bradshaw provides humanitarian aid on the frontline in South Sudan. She shares what the work’s like and how she got involved.
Humanitarian work is hard. It can be depressing and dangerous. Why would any 28-year-old women like me – who’s enjoyed all the comforts of the ‘the world’s most liveable city’ Melbourne – want to do this?
Right now, I’m sitting in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, working for Plan International to provide education, child protection, nutrition, food and livelihood support to children and families trying to survive this protracted crisis.
One of the ‘poorest and youngest countries on earth ‘, South Sudan has been in turmoil since its formation in 2011. This fledging nation is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis fuelled by decades of conflict and natural disasters – more than 4.6 million children and families have been displaced by fighting, and many are facing famine-like conditions and disease outbreaks.
How did I come to be sitting here?
I became a humanitarian because I believe that where a child is born in the world shouldn’t dictate the opportunities they get in life. I saw the reality of this firsthand when I was 18 living in Vietnam. The friends I made there didn’t have the same opportunities as me or other young women growing up in Australia. And they worked so hard for everything they did have.
Since becoming an aid worker, I’ve visited IDP camps in Myanmar, and rural communities in Zimbabwe and South Sudan.
Yes, my first visit to South Sudan was confronting. I remember being hyper-alert to any strange sounds and one night, when 20-odd cars careened past my guesthouse, car horns blaring, I was worried that it was a group stirring up conflict – what I didn’t realise at the time was that it was just a wedding party, celebrating loudly.
When I arrived on May 8th 2018, immigration were on alert to Ebola threats (South Sudan borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo) and the government feared protests over the tentative status of the country’s peace agreement. The military was everywhere, stopping people and checking their identification. We closed our office and had to buy additional rations from the shops in case fighting erupted and we went into lockdown. And amid all of this, our team was working madly to finish a $1.5 million proposal for the United Nations Peace Building Fund, which was due in just a few days. It was a headfirst dive into what life is like for a humanitarian worker in the field. Among everything else that might be going on – wars, protests, natural disasters – you’re just trying to get your work done.
And it’s important work. It’s the work that keeps me motivated when facing situations that, to many, would seem hopeless.
It’s the small wins that get me. It can be as simple as hearing about a mother who didn’t realise her child was malnourished and is now feeding her properly. Or seeing children sitting down together and sharing the meal provided to them through a school feeding program – likely the only decent meal they will see all day. And these are the small changes that need to happen in the world. The change I want to help make happen.
I want people to get the same opportunities I had growing up, particularly girls and women.
My education, and not having to start a family when I was young, is why I can do this work. It’s a right that everyone should have – to grow up with the choice to lead the life they want.
I’m motivated by the young girl I stood next to in South Sudan, who couldn’t have been older than 12, who wasn’t in school because she was expected to get married. Child marriage is an incredibly complex issue and there’s so much work that needs to be done to address it in this country. It’s extremely hard for a family facing extreme poverty to prioritise the needs of their daughter. And yet, she is still just a child, and should be allowed to enjoy her childhood like any other kid growing up around the world.
And so, I keep going, doing what I do. And I’m far from the only woman humanitarian working in the field. In our office in Juba, there are remarkably resilient women not only working – but balancing their work with supporting their families, who are often living far away in Uganda, where their children can grow up in a safer environment and get a decent education. The more women we support here in South Sudan, the more there will be to contribute to their families, communities, and to the nation.
My dream, of course, is that every child has the same opportunities in life, no matter where they are born. In reality I know we have an incredibly long way to go to achieve that – but I also know that any move in that direction is positive, and I know that it is happening. It’s slow, but it’s happening.