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.”

Seventeen-year-old Khied (pictured above) remembers the haunting sound of people crying in pain after a devastating flood destroyed her village this year.

The teen from Attapeu Province, in southern Laos, was getting ready for bed when everything suddenly turned dark and water came gushing into the house.

“I heard a sound like wind and the power in the whole village went off,” Khied says. “I woke my younger brother and sister up and prepared to leave.”

For Khied, the flood – which resulted after the collapse of a dam in Attapeu in July 2018 – was the “most terrible nightmare imaginable”.

After their home was destroyed, she remembers being dragged out with her brother and sister by the force of the water, to the forest.

It was five days before they saw their parents again.

“During the flood, I told my sister and brother to hold onto a tree so we would not float away,” Khied recalls. “There was so much debris like roofs, and logs and rocks that hit us.

“I had to stay alert and take care of my brother and sister so they wouldn’t be scared.”

The siblings ended up on a mountain in the forest, where they stayed overnight.

The next day, Khied saw the extent of the devastation. Debris was floating everywhere and there wasn’t a house in sight.

“I could only hear the sounds of people, injured and crying,” she says.

“I tried looking for my parents and calling out for them, but I didn’t see them anywhere.”