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.”

Ma Nwe has a big smile as she admires her new sewing machine. It’s a fine-looking Singer with a shiny gold and black body.

For the 20-year-old dressmaking student (pictured above) the machine represents a new beginning. For the first time in a long time the future looks good. Really good.

A new life, and a new home for her mum and sisters, Ma Nwe imagines. And, one day, a tailor shop for herself.

How different things are now, compared to just a few months ago when she was working seven days a week at a manufacturing factory, checking the quality of drinking flasks, day in, day out.

It had been her job for the past seven years, since she was 13 years old.

At the age of nine, Ma Nwe dropped out of school to help look after her two younger sisters so her parents could go to work. When their father died she was forced to go to work to make up for the family’s loss of income.

She worked 70-hour weeks, earning an equivalent of about US$60, at the manufacturing factory, and only had one day off a month. All her earnings went to her mother to keep the family afloat.

“If I continued working there, I think nothing would have changed in my life because my earnings were just spent on food,” Ma Nwe says.