Pakistan_Maryam wearing CARE emergency response vest in front of greenery
Photo: CARE Pakistan

World Humanitarian Day: “I want women to be able to fully use their voices” 

Even as women are disproportionately impacted by crises, they continue to be central in leading efforts for sustainable solutions to their compounding effects. In the lead up to World Humanitarian Day on August 19th, we are shining light on the role of women in humanitarian crises around the globe. 

Through their work at CARE, our partner organizations, and communities around the world, womanitarians are empowering women everywhere and amplifying their voices in the fight for a world of hope, inclusion, and social justice. 

Join us in learning about Maryam's amazing journey! 

Maryam Imtiaz: “I want women to be able to fully use their voices” 

Maryam Imtiaz is a Communications Assistant at CARE Pakistan. In 2022, she worked closely in the response to the floods that left nearly one-third of the country underwater and impacted over 30 million people. She shared with us the challenges, rewards, and inspirations of her work and what she wishes for women and girls in Pakistan. 

Portrait of woman wearing a scarf and a hat

Maryam during the response to the 2022 Pakistan floods.

How and why did you get into humanitarian work? 

When I came across women of my age facing humanitarian crises, with no access to basic rights, I was often forced to think about what the difference is between us. It is simply the difference in where we were born. I was blessed to have had access to all the services and support I needed to achieve my goals. If I didn’t, I would most likely be in a very different situation.  

This gives me not only a sense of responsibility, but also an obligation to help anyone and everyone to have access to the same opportunities. Humanitarian work allows me to do that. 

I am committed to working with women and girls in Pakistan to ensure that they have access to education, healthcare, protection, and all that is their right. Everyone deserves to have the chance to reach their full potential, and I will always do my best to help make that happen.  

Are there any specific moments in your career which you’re proud of?  

In 2021, during a COVID-19 prevention action, I met an elderly woman in Mityari Sindh, Southeast Pakistan. In Pakistani culture, shaking hands is a respectful way of greeting people. The woman offered to shake my hand, but I explained that I would prefer an elbow shake to avoid spreading the virus. She didn't understand me because of the language barrier, and I could see the disappointment on her face – there are over 70 languages spoken in Pakistan, which can pose challenges in the work with different communities. 

Later that day, after a training session on how to prevent the spread of the virus was conducted in Sindhi, the language spoken in this region, I went back to the woman and offered her an elbow shake. This time, she understood and reciprocated. The disappointment was gone, and the other women there also started shaking each other's elbows. This was a moment of pride for me. There is no small action in humanitarian work, every change, every contribution, every conversation counts. 

What are some of the challenges surrounding the humanitarian field? What are some of the rewards?  

Although I am passionate about my work, it does come with a significant set of challenges. These range from navigating complex political dynamics to communication barriers and physical and mental health hazards.  

To even start implementing a humanitarian response, the first step is finding a way forward through multiple institutional structures, stakeholders and often a great deal of bureaucracy. This is distressing when urgent needs are mounting. 

When we reach communities, simply communicating can be a challenge in a country like Pakistan. With nearly 70 languages spoken and different cultural norms, we must always find ways to connect and create trust - which can take time and even some creativity. 

The emotional toll is also significant. In the first weeks after working in the response to the floods in 2022, I had difficulty sleeping. I often dreamt my house was underwater and that I contracted diseases.  

However, many of these challenges often help to improve our work. For example, experiencing this emotional toll myself increases my understanding of what program participants have suffered. Learning different cultures deepens the understanding of other experiences, their needs, and how we can work together towards a world with more social justice. Seeing how all of us change in these processes - communities, humanitarian workers, community leaders – is often the biggest reward.

Pakistan_People standing by destroyed home after flood

Response to the 2022 floods in Balochistan, Pakistan. Photo: Maryam Imtiaz/CARE

What are the challenges and strengths of being a woman working in the humanitarian sector?  

Cultural norms and practices in Pakistan often pose great challenges for women humanitarian workers. 

In some communities, our presence is not well seen, and we can only support the response externally. This is particularly frustrating because it hinders support to women and girls affected by crises.  

As a woman, I am able to build rapport with other women more easily than my male colleagues.  I share a common understanding of their experiences and can communicate with them in a way that they feel comfortable with. In fact, some women cannot even be reached by male aid workers as cultural norms prevent them from contacting men outside of their families. 

It is crucial for women to be involved in the humanitarian response in Pakistan and everywhere. We have a unique perspective and skillset that can be invaluable in reaching and supporting the most vulnerable populations. 

Finally, what would you like to see for women and girls in Pakistan, particularly those affected by humanitarian crises?  

First, I urge that women and girls facing humanitarian crises in Pakistan and elsewhere have their specific needs answered. In the response to the 2022 floods, I met little Fiza, who lost her mother Fozia only a few days after being born. Fozia passed away because she could not access healthcare in time to stop post-partum bleeding.  

This should not happen. Women and girls need access to safe and secure maternal healthcare, shelter, protection, economic opportunities, and education.  

Finally, I would like to see women and girls in Pakistan be able to participate fully in society. I would like to see them represented in government, in businesses, and in other decision-making bodies. I would like them to be able to use their voices to advocate for their own rights and the rights of others. 

Pakistan_Baby with unibrow eyeliner sleeping on mom's lap

Fiza is now left in the care of her aunt, Saibani, after her mother's passing. Photo: Maryam Imtiaz