Many women working in Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical projects have had to overcome barriers to be leaders, including gender stereotypes. Yet they stand out as change-makers and advocates in MSF and their communities, transforming perceptions about women and ensuring their voices contribute to making our programs inclusive and accessible to all.
Over 90 percent of MSF staff are recruited locally. From drivers to nurse supervisors to finance coordinators, women leaders are critical to sustaining MSF’s commitment to high quality, patient-centred care. With women’s leadership, we can ensure a more diverse and balanced perspective on everything from program design, through field-level implementation, to setting the future direction of the organization.
To mark International Women’s Day 2022, inspired by their diversity and their individual strength, we asked some of our unrecognized women leaders, “What can we learn from you?” Here’s what they told us.
“When you work very hard you will definitely achieve”
Rebecca Lahai is a clinical mentor in the MSF Academy for Healthcare in MSF’s Hangha hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, a key site for on-the-job training for nurses studying in the Academy. Before being appointed as a mentor last year, Rebecca had also been a mentee in the Academy’s basic clinical nursing care program.
Becoming a nurse was my dream from when I was little. I always admired people putting on their white gowns. I remember when my auntie was admitted in the government hospital; I went there to pay visits to her. I saw the way the medical staff had compassion and empathy for her. I was inspired by that, and I said, “When I grow up, I definitely want to become a nurse”: not so different to the way I am now.
In Hangha hospital I started in the inpatient therapeutic feeding centre (ITFC) where we are dealing with malnourished children, [but we also] give health education and help motivate the caretaker so that their child can recover without delays in line with the treatment. It’s the ITFC that I’m covering as a clinical mentor for the MSF Academy for Healthcare.
There are almost 30 nurses and also some nurse aides on the ward. My work involves mentoring the mentees through theory sessions and “skill-ups” (practical skills sessions), assisting them to do better observation of patients, and identifying learning opportunities for them.
The Academy is essential to Hangha hospital in helping our quality of care. In the end, we’re all able to reduce the rates of child death and maternal death. And we can contribute to a lot of improvement in the healing process of the patients.
I’m interested in people—I like to interact with them, with patients, and also with my mentees.
When I was a mentee I was always eager to learn. [Even today,] after work I go home and I try to read something. For some of the sessions given to us as mentors I try to go through them, to see where I’m supposed to improve. I try to do research and to use a dictionary to know the certain meaning of words, so that I can be a better clinical mentor. I’ve also had support from my line manager and my colleagues: team spirit. These are some of the ways that I have developed expertise in my role.
To be a leader, communication is paramount: both verbal and written. Sometimes you can avoid using formal grammar, or jargon, and just use simple English to help people understand. You have to have respect. You have to know how to interact. You have to be flexible. You have to open yourself to learn something new, and also you have to find a way to bring solutions. And you have to be courageous.
Like all human beings I’m not 100 percent perfect, so sometimes I try to ask my mentee how I can improve. Because I want a good relationship with them—it should be two-way, and cordial. You should not be too bossy! If you interact at the same level, other people won’t know the difference, that you are the mentor.
My message to other women like me is to be determined and motivated. When you have set up your goals in life, don’t run away from them, no matter what might be the challenge coming your way. When you work very hard, my fellow women, you will definitely achieve.
I’m a clinical mentor now, so you too can be the same—or maybe you will be better than me! when you work towards your goal.
“Believe in yourself”
As a human resources assistant with MSF in Abs, Yemen, Khadija Al-Haj is involved in every aspect of the hospital-based project.
She encourages women to develop themselves professionally and have the courage to pursue their dreams. Watch her story below:
“Let us do it together”
Rebecca Smith is medical activity manager in MSF’s ‘Hospital on the Hill’ in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, which provides healthcare to the Rohingya refugees living in the 23 refugee camps. She began working with MSF when she was a refugee herself, running from conflict in her native Liberia and seeking refuge in Ivory Coast.
For me, the humanitarian work started at an early age. When I was a child, my parents took care of orphans, other people, children. In our Liberian society everyone takes care of someone – so I grew up with that idea of being humanitarian, and I adopted the same idea when I grew up, too.
My story goes back to 1990, when Liberia was in civil war. I fled to the Ivory Coast as a refugee and volunteered in a clinic there, to use my skills as a nurse to help others who had fled. After three months we were approached by MSF who were opening a centre to treat malnourished children. They needed health workers and I was recommended by the clinic, so after meeting the Field Coordinator and passing a test I was hired as a nutrition assistant. This was my first encounter with MSF.
When the program had to close due to increased conflict, MSF moved the program to southeast Liberia, near my hometown, and I worked with them in the same hospital I had first worked in after my nursing training. MSF renovated the hospital, which had been damaged during the war, and after six months I was made supervisor of the project.
Unfortunately, another insurgency meant we had to flee back to the Ivory Coast, leaving everything behind. But MSF opened another hospital in Monrovia, the capital, and when I was in the refugee camp I got a letter saying that MSF was looking for me. I was made supervisor of the surgical department and worked there for five years.
In 2010 I took my first international assignment to Yemen. I’ve since worked with MSF in South Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya. I returned to Liberia during the Ebola crisis, and in April 2020 I helped with COVID-19 community awareness by distributing hand soap door-to-door. During the pandemic I was home waiting for the crisis to end, and when the opportunity came up for Bangladesh, I was asked if I would be willing to go. I said yes.
Now in my current role I am in charge of the medical doctors, nursing activity, nursing team supervisors, the emergency department, intensive care unit, general ward, isolation ward and the laboratory. I manage the supervisors of those areas and oversee the overall management of the hospital.
As a leader I have challenges – you’ve got to have challenges; if you don’t, then it isn’t worth it. In leadership you have to be patient, you have to be able to tolerate some things, and you have to have good listening ears.
In some countries women have the last say, or don’t have any say at all. When you come in to be a leader it’s tricky, because sometimes they won’t do what you ask them to. Sometimes there is a stereotype attitude—that a woman is supposed to only be in a certain place, only cooking. We should try to get out of that attitude.
Being a woman, being a leader, you have to be strong through these difficulties. I know in the future it will get better, but it is a gradual process. We should still persevere, we shouldn’t be discouraged, we should still do what we are called to do. We came to help—so then let us do it together.
“Don’t let them stop you”
Shorouq Madmouj is a social worker working with MSF in Nablus, Palestine.
As a woman, she’s used to being underestimated. Over time, notwithstanding a visual impairment, she has served her conflict-hit community with compassion; and now she has been rewarded with their trust.
As a woman I feel people underestimate me. They look at me and say: ‘She can’t do it. Who is she?’ Watch her story below:
“We build up our capacities together”
Prunau Mimose Lector is a nurse supervisor in the MSF Burns Emergency Project in Cap-Haitien, in northern Haiti. Highly experienced, Prunau has also contributed to MSF’s emergency response on the small but disaster-prone island, and recently led a post-operative care team in the hardest-hit southern region after the August 2021 earthquake.
My job is to support the nursing teams, to evaluate them and to make sure that they provide good quality of care in the hospital, in compliance with MSF protocols. I just strive to lead my team the best I can, and to do my job well.
Being a leader means being able to manage your team with wisdom and serenity, but also with a firm hand.
My team is very collaborative, and this is what inspires me most. We build up our capacities together. I always tell them that we have the same training but different levels of experience. Everyone must know their limits and those of others in order to move forward in the patients’ best interest.
That’s where I can have an impact, as we manage to do our work without weighing in with authority. When we reach out to communities in times of emergency, we seek to explain the work of MSF as an NGO. We tell them how long our intervention will last, we inform them that we won’t stay forever in the community, that our care is free, and that we can only encourage them to take advantage of the quality healthcare MSF provides.
During my last assignment in Les Cayes after the earthquake, when we arrived on August 23, 2021, the Immaculate Conception Hospital was overwhelmed. Children and adults were together. People were arriving at the hospital after several days with infected wounds. I looked in the emergency room; it was upside down. People were suffering. There was blood everywhere. It hurt me deep inside.
My biggest role was to support MSF’s integration into the Ministry of Public Health and Population’s hospital there. It was very difficult to make everyone in the health system understand the purpose of MSF being there and what we came to do. In Haiti’s health system, if you don’t have money, you don’t have access to care.
I am always ready to overcome any situation.
I used my Haitian soul to make them understand that our fellow countrymen and countrywomen needed help, and that MSF had come to provide quality and free healthcare to them. To help victims who don’t have access to this level of care unless it is free, simply because they can’t afford it.
It was impressive how everyone came together, even local volunteers who stepped up to work in the hospital alongside the staff. They worked non-stop. If it weren’t for them, our job would have been much harder.
Outside of work, I am a married woman with two children, a girl and a boy.
I don’t think I face specific difficulties because I am a woman. It is difficult for people to challenge me because, with my personality, they understand that I am not as weak a woman as they might have thought. I believe that whatever anyone achieves, I can also do it. I am always ready to overcome any situation.
My advice to women would be to move away from clichés that depict women as weak compared to men, to be self-confident, to believe in their abilities, and to always keep moving forward. We are women, sure, but this should not restrict us. You must push forward and follow your dreams.
“The community needs us women”
As finance coordinator in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Marie-Jocelyne Nshimirimana leads a team to support regular projects as well as emergency interventions for MSF. She enjoys guiding her team forward for positive change and seeing it resonate in the community.
I started off as a national staff member. I fulfilled many different roles, including six years in various administrative positions. This gave me the opportunity to train extensively within MSF, and the skills I developed gave me a lot of opportunities. Watch her story below: