Emergencies, particularly in war zones, do not typically attract women however because it can be a “very boy-sy” culture.
“We’re in armoured cars and jackets,” Margaret says. “We did this safe training where they tie you up, put a bag over your head and stick a gun up against your neck to teach you how to respond if you get kidnapped.
“It was dreadful.
“I kept thinking to myself, if this ever happens to me I’m going to be dead. I kept thinking if it was the real thing I would be sick.
“You had to climb over cars and walk over minefields, so in that way it is incredibly boy-sy.”
Rebuilding communities after a natural disaster
Margaret began working in the Philippines six weeks after Typhoon Haiyan hit the central region of the country in November 2013. With wind speeds sustained at more than 150mph, Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful typhoons of all time, killing more than 6,000 people and displacing 4.1 million others.
Over the two years she spent helping to rebuild communities impacted by the disaster, one memory that has stayed with her is the vulnerability of women and children, particularly adolescent girls, in the camps set up for displaced families.
Protecting the rights of women and children after Typhoon Haiyan
“In emergencies, we need to look out for children, but we also look need to look out for women because even when things seem equal, it’s still going to be worse off for girls and women,” Margaret says.
“The camps are full of women and children. The women are looking after the children, the emotions, the pain, the dead, and the men are out picking up the rubble.
“In the camps you’ve got the issue of protection because you’ve got women and children all together so anyone can hurt them.
“Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable because they’re not seen to be important enough to be a part of the recovery and rebuilding efforts, although adolescence boys are.
“They kind of become invisible during the crisis.”
Leading the way for all women in international aid and development
While it is the emergency work that often draws headlines, Margaret feels that it has been her work in the field of international development that has been the most rewarding.
Before taking up roles in the Philippines and Yemen, she headed up UNICEF’s office in Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province.
She was the most senior person with the United Nations at the time and managed an office in the capital Jayapura. Most of her work was focused on implementing education programs in remote communities, ensuring disadvantaged children had access to schools and teachers were properly trained.
Papua wasn’t the safest place for a woman because of the potential of civil unrest, but it was a role she thoroughly enjoyed.
“I loved being the boss more than I thought I would, not because I could boss people around but because at least I could make the decisions and when I made the decisions I could be responsible for them,” Margaret laughs.
“There is something about the way women operate as bosses; they balance the human side with the practicalities and policies around the job.”
“I feel in the workplace there are messages to women as bosses that your softer side and soft skills are not valuable, and that men will better.”
Prior to her post in Papua, she was based in Bangkok as UNICEF’s adolescence advisor for south-east Asia, east Asia and the Pacific, and before that, she enjoyed seven years with the World Health Organisation helping to develop and implement adolescence health programs in Vietnam.
Education is key to driving change for women and girls
Margaret credits her parents, particularly her father, for her strong sense of leadership and passion for equality and women’s rights.
She is the third eldest of nine children, and remembers the family dinner table being a meeting point for heated discussions.
“My mother was very social and inclusive,” Margaret says. “She provided all the love and nurturing. My father was the academic one. He would start political conversations and encourage us to clarify what we said. If you talked rubbish, he would call you on rubbish.
“He never taught us girls that we would grow up and a bloke would look after us. There was never any of that. He absolutely encouraged us to become strong, independent women and to pursue careers.
“He saw education as key.
“I think education for girls is the key to success, to getting out of poverty, to having a better life. All the research shows that educated women earn more money and that educated mothers have healthier children.”