Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

She led an international team in a war zone, helped rebuild communities after Typhoon Haiyan and transformed health and education systems around the world. ChildFund Australia’s International Program Director and proud feminist Margaret Sheehan shares what it is like to be a female leader and why more women are needed in the development and humanitarian aid sector.

When civil war broke out in Yemen in 2015, Margaret was in the Philippines helping to piece together homes and schools that had been destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan.

While she had built a level of resilience in the Philippines working in environments where trauma and devastation were the daily norm, the role in Yemen had its own set of challenges.

She feared for her life when a bomb was dropped near the compound where she was living.

“You would hear bombing over in certain places and you would see the sky light up and then it would quiet again, but this day it was the closest it came.”

“We had to go down to the safe rooms; this bomb went off and the windows blew out, and I just thought, oh god, this is it.”

Margaret was second-in-charge of a team of 12 who had been deployed by UNICEF to write proposals on the ground to raise funds for emergency items such as food and water for families affected by the war.

Living and working in a war zone as a senior female leader, however, meant her role became much more complex than writing proposals.

She found herself becoming a mentor, providing emotional support to her colleagues, particularly for the younger women in her team.

“There is a fair bit of mayhem going on because people are living in these strange environments. There’s a lot of emotional stuff,” Margaret says.

It is because of this that emergency situations need strong women, says Margaret. “You need that rational side, but you also need some gentleness and someone to say it will be OK.”

For children who live in remote areas like the Ngan Son District of Vietnam, teaching and learning facilities are often poor, and all too often there is no school within easy reach.

Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, ChildFund is working with the government to address this problem.

On my last visit to Vietnam, I visited a very remote area where children as young as five have to walk up to five kilometres every day to reach their closest school.

The idea of a young child having to walk so far alone is horrifying – there’s no infrastructure on the roads, and there’s a real danger of them having an accident on the way.

Right now, ChildFund is working in seven communities in the Ngan Son District, helping build schools for children who have difficulty accessing education.

We ensure that there are training courses for teachers and fund school infrastructure.