politics

13 Australian heroes you haven’t heard of: Libby Bowell

Each week we will be running Q&As with Australian women doing vital humanitarian and aid work. Women you may not have heard of.

This week meet Libby Bowell, Australian Red Cross Health Aid Worker in Nepal.

1. What does your role entail on a day-to-day basis?

Every mission is different but right now, I am working with Red Cross in Nepal. My role has been to set up a health program in an areas heavily affected by earthquakes, run over the next one to two years. On a day-to-day basis, my role also involves supporting the local Nepalese Red Cross to build capacity to respond better in future emergencies. As the international Red Cross, we stand side-by-side with our local counterparts to help make dealing with the emergency a little easier. I can be working at the headquarters level or in the ‘field’ or in local communities with local families.

Libby Bowell in Nepal. Photo: Victor Laken, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

2. How did you become involved in humanitarian/aid work?

I was working as a remote area nurse in the Northern Territory and met other nurses who worked between remote and international humanitarian aid work. There are many similarities between remote Australia and international aid – the isolation, the lack of resources, the needs of the communities, so it seemed like a natural next step. The compliment between remote health in Australia and international work has been very valuable.

3. What are the most rewarding/challenging parts of your job?

The most rewarding part, as cliché as it sounds, is being able to make a difference in people's lives. We don't get to do that as much in Australia but in the humanitarian world, the needs are huge yet often simple, like the ability to prevent or stop a diarrhoea outbreak by just teaching people about washing their hands with soap. Watching women become empowered with knowledge that can change their own lives and their children's futures is very rewarding. When a woman can stop her children from getting sick, her standing in the community is often recognised and the information shared at market places and around washing points.

The challenges are endless really. We do what we can but so often, these emergencies are in countries where poverty and needs are already so high. A cholera outbreak in Freetown in Sierra Leone is always going to be hard when less than 10% of the population have access to a toilet and less than 30% can drink a cup of safe drinking water.

4. In general, do you think Australians are generous givers?

I like to think so. I like to think people give what they can when they can but a lot of the problem lies in the reality that today's news becomes old news very quickly. How many people think of Nepal six months after the earthquake? How many people know that there is a fuel crisis that has entered its second month and that it's getting very cold here? Fuel means gas as well, so people are running out of it very quickly now – no gas, no cooking and heating as well as major difficulties in daily commuting. It is starting to cripple industries and there is no end in sight.

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5. Do you think that the Australian government is currently meeting its global responsibilities in terms of aid?

In my experience working in many countries around the world, including right now in Nepal and West Africa many times, I can see what aid can do. I see women being given opportunities to improve their lives and the future for their children. As a well-resourced rich country, like all the other wealthier countries, we have an obligation to pull our weight. I know first hand that even small contributions can have a big impact to improve health programs, to improve infant mortality, to provide safer birthing options for women, programs for tuberculosis or HIV, provide safe clean drinking water, and a toilet for a family.

Red Cross nurse Libby Bowell helps to provide health care in some of the most remoted and worst affected communities across Nepal after the earthquakes. Photo: Australian Red Cross.

6. What are the most significant humanitarian crises we are facing, both at home and abroad?

That's a big question! We are seeing more and more epidemics of disease, outbreaks, most commonly in countries where they live in complex situations of war, poverty, with severe malnutrition of children under 5 years of age and poor maternal care for women. These emergencies don't make the news yet at any one time in African countries, several long-term emergency operations will be taking place.

On top of this, we clearly have the continuing and growing issue of thousands of people leaving Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in their quest just for a safe life for their families. 5000-6000 people a day continue to arrive in countries like Greece alone. I have friends working in a health care unit where they say the rain is heavy, the nights are so cold and many thousands of people have nowhere to sleep or to go every single day. The health clinic is seeing more than 200 people just on a night shift, many dehydrated, with acute respiratory illnesses, distressed, tired, cold, and then it happens all over again the next day.

We all have to think about this, we all have to help. Just for one minute, think about losing your home, having to cross an ocean in desperation, having no possessions, wanting a better life for your family … just a normal life, just to feel safe.

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Red Cross nurse Libby Bowell educates local communities to stop the spread of Ebola with the epidemic at its peak in Liberia – the country has now been declared Ebola free. Photo: Victor Laken, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

7. What do you see as the most significant challenges for women in the developed and developing world?

Women are the main caregivers in developing countries. The women are often the uneducated, often unable to travel away from their home, often unable to work. When food is short, safety is not guaranteed. When you struggle to clothe your children or have somewhere to sleep, it places enormous pressures on mothers. The men may have to travel away for work and may not return for a long time. In many countries, maternal and child health care is still very, very difficult. Death rates at birth are high. If a woman is malnourished herself, breastfeeding a baby is not easy at all.

Domestic violence is high all over the world and that saddens me greatly. We see a rise in domestic violence as a consequence of disasters and emergencies because life gets tougher, people live in overcrowded situations, men lose their ability to provide for the family. Sadly, women bear the brunt of this.

Melinda Gates on the "gender gap noone is talking about", time poverty:

In the developed world, certainly here in Australia, domestic violence seems to continue despite its profile being raised. To see the murder of women by partners so frequently in the news is something I just can't understand at all. I am glad to see the government say it is not acceptable. I am glad women are getting a voice and I am glad so many high profile men stand up and say it is not acceptable, I hope the law supports the need and makes it easier for women to seek help. No one can afford to drop the ball on this.

8. What can everyday Australians do each day to make a difference?

Don't forget the developing countries. Think about the people trying to find a safe haven across the waters. Don't let people say stupid things about these innocent victims. Talk about it out loud.

9. Do you have any advice for young women who want to do aid work?

It's a great life to get into. Think about what interests you and who you want to work for and prepare yourself for it. We have great learning institutions. In health and environmental health, we have the most fantastic place to learn and gain experience right here in our own backyard: remote Australia!

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