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Interview: Emma Pettey, inclusive humanitarian-action project officer

03 January 2020

‘After a disaster, the most at-risk groups are often overlooked in the rush to save lives’

I work for CBM, an international Christian development and human­itarian organisation committed to improving the quality of life of per­sons with disabilities in the poorest countries of the world. We help over 30 million people in more than 50 of the poorest countries. Our work includes preventing blindness and transforming the lives of people with disabilities and their families. We helped develop UN guidelines on in­­clusion in humanitarian action, and capacity-building activities for per­­sons with disabilities.

I’m part of CBM’s Emergency Re­­sponse Unit, which aims to reach and actively involve people with dis­abilities, to make sure that they are fully included in mainstream ser­vices. We work with local part­ners on projects, including the emergency provision of food, shel­ter, and med­ical aid. We also make longer-term interventions covering educa­tion, san­­i­ta­­tion, healthcare, live­lihood, and reconstruction.

The barriers people with disabilities face, day to day, are amplified in a crisis. They may be more impacted by hazards, and can’t necessarily receive assistance. Unless human­itarian responses are inclus­ive, 15 per cent of the world’s popu­lation won’t be reached. For ex­­ample, a person with a physical disability could be excluded from food dis­tribution if the terrain is in­­acces­s­ible, if their assistive devices have been lost or damaged, or if food pack­ages are too heavy. If inform­a­tion comes only over loudspeaker, someone who’s deaf may not hear it.

I can’t separate my faith from what I do. In scripture, you don’t see Jesus discriminating against anyone. There are so many verses about Christ’s love for people who were excluded from their communities. We’re called to go out and be light in this world, and humanitarian aid is the area I’m called to. I believe God gives you the passion for the areas that he wants you in.

We receive many requests from aid organisations to train their staff, but we still find that the most at-risk groups are often overlooked in the rush to save lives. Immediately after a disaster we want everyone to receive supplies — for example, tents or tarpaulins to provide immediate shelter — but design and delivery have to be inclusive to reach all people.

One of the best parts of the job is seeing the impact that the work is having. I love watching a child who has been severely injured in a natural disaster take their first steps, and then go on to play football with their friends; or seeing a child with a disability go to school for the first time.

I went into occupational therapy to work overseas, and did a postgrad­uate degree in international develop­ment. Before joining CBM, I was involved in the Syrian response in 2013, working on accessibility in the refugee camps in Jordan; and then in the Philippines, after super-typhoon Yolanda, managing teams providing technical support to organisations.

Most recently, I’ve been doing hu­­manitarian preparedness plan­ning in Indonesia, and disability main­streaming work in Bangladesh with their Centre for Disability in De­­velop­­ment.

In Bangladesh, there was a child in one of the host communities near the Rohingya camps who was going to school and moving around his community on his hands and knees. The textbook response would be to give him a wheelchair; but his home was on a steep, muddy hill, and the terrain of the community was not wheelchair-accessible. He’d already fallen out of a wheelchair and in­­jured himself, and he couldn’t use it independently or follow his friends into the village. We thought maybe elbow- and knee-protectors to pro­tect his joints will give him independence he wants now. And a wheelchair later for home and school use, if he and his family wanted.

Developing solutions that are cheaper, cost-efficient, and locally-made to meet people’s actual needs is vital. Persons with disabilities are the experts on their requirements and sol­utions, but they’re rare­ly consulted, and their capacities are often over­­­­looked.

My last trip to Bangladesh was sup­posed to be one week, but was extended many times. I’m still feeling the effect of that trip. It takes quite a toll — the long hours, the food that doesn’t always agree with you; but the pas­sion and deep belief in what you’re doing gives you the strength to keep going.

We talked to people with disabil­ities, and older people, in both Rohingya camps and host com­mun­ities about their access to human­itarian services. The terrain of the camps is very inaccessible, and shelters have been completely wash­­ed off cliff edges in monsoons. I met a man who’d had a stroke since arriving in Bangladesh. Physio­therapy helped him walk independ­ently, but the toilet near his home was too far away and not accessible. As emergency latrines were built very quickly and didn’t take the needs of persons with disabilities into account, he’d been forced to use a commode without any privacy. When he could suggest how to make the toilet more accessible for him, things could be adapted.

Women are at heightened risk of gender-based violence, especially in refugee camps. Many women are afraid to leave their house, especially at night to use the toilet. Female-headed households can be at in­­creased risk, and are also likely to experience higher levels of poverty. And it is worse for women with disabilities: cases of sexual violence often go unreported because the women face can’t get protection. Often their testimony isn’t accepted as valid. In Bangladesh, we provided technical support and training to support organisations on how to bet­­ter include women with dis­­abilities them in their protection programmes.

Children, especially unaccom­panied children, are also at risk. In Bangladesh, we’re running an in­­clusive child-friendly space, which welcomes all children and promotes their active participation. We also help other organisations make their programmes for children more in­­clusive.

I try to find small pieces of hope in the midst of desperation. For example, I met a young girl in the Rohingya camps who’d been unable to walk, and had never had the opportunity to go to school. Her family paid someone to carry her all the way to Bangladesh when they fled from Myanmar. Once there, she was able to receive physio­therapy, start to walk, and go to school for the first time in her life.

I’m an only child, and I grew up in Western Canada. I remember spending quite a few of my summers out camp­ing, and snowboarding in the wintertime. I’ve moved quite a bit as an adult. I’ve been living in Cambridge for almost two years now, but I spend a sig­­nificant amount of my time travelling for my job.

There are many times when I’ve had to find courage. It’s hard to pick just one. I’m thinking most of times when I’ve stood up for something I believed in even if it wasn’t the popular opinion.

Injustice and discrimination make me angry: when people make assumptions about other people based on stereotypes; when a person’s perception of their own status in society causes them to look down on others and treat them without respect.

In my job, seeing the positive achievement of something I’ve worked on brings me joy. I also enjoy spending time with friends and family. I grew up next to the Rocky Mountains; so I enjoy spend­ing time outside, sun or snow.

I love the sounds of nature: birds chirping in the morning, the ocean crashing, the silence you find camp­ing in the wilderness. I work in some very noisy and hectic environ­ments; so I really appreciate these.

I usually pray for wisdom.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose to be with the people closest to me. When you spend a lot of time away from home you really learn to value your relationships and time with your friends and family.

Emma Pettey was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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