8 women working in humanitarian aid you need to know


Categories: Gender, Health, Innovation, Refugees, Women

Meet 8 Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported women who are trailblazing innovative solutions for people in conflict


It is estimated that over 40% of the half a million humanitarian workers who provide frontline care during emergencies, conflicts and disasters, are women. Women are at the forefront of improving health, access to safe water, providing life-saving information and more for conflict-affected populations through service delivery, education and capacity strengthening, advocacy and research. Women are also disproportionately affected by conflict and humanitarian emergencies, but their voices are largely missing from efforts to treat the problems they face. 

This International Women’s Day, meet Humanitarian Grand Challenge supported innovators who are working on solutions for those affected by conflict. Epidemiologists, refugees, entrepreneurs, and mental-health advocates – these 8 women are making game-changing contributions to the field of humanitarian innovation as well as using their positions to advocate for greater inclusion of women in humanitarian assistance. 


Linda Wamune, Program Director at Energy Peace Partners, Kenya

Linda Wamune is an off-grid energy practitioner with over 17 years experience in design and implementation of clean energy distribution programs of rural communities in several parts of Africa. She currently works as Program Director at Energy Peace Partners, supporting renewable energy as a building block for peace. 

Studying engineering at university, Linda was one of two women in her class of 45. “I’ve always wanted to be at the forefront of impact and change. I love science and technology and I knew I wanted to implement change through innovation,” says Linda. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest energy access rates in the world, with only half the population being reached with electricity. “Lack of access to energy affects everyone, but it’s usually the women who suffer most. Energy is needed for cooking, lighting, doing business, places where women are heavily involved and face the biggest challenges,” notes Linda. “Once that access is secured, life for women becomes easier.”  Her wish is that more women enter the sector and try to improve representation. “As we know if you live in a fragile context your access to education is not the same, working to build peace and stability in communities will have a ripple effect for access to education. It starts with young girls getting more support in education.” Working with her team at Energy Peace Partners, Linda is leveraging climate and finance solutions to promote peace in the world’s most fragile regions. Their climate-sensitive approach expands the existing toolkit for peace and development by extending the renewable energy revolution to some of the planet’s most vulnerable populations; addressing the intersection of energy poverty, conflict risk and climate vulnerability to demonstrate the peace dividends of clean energy.


Dr. Debbie Lin Teodorescu, Founder and President of SurgiBox Inc, Cambridge MA USA

Over 18 million people die each year as a result of lack of safe surgery. This could be because of under-resourced hospitals, destroyed infrastructure, or unhygienic and unsterile environments. “What if we could make safe, sterile operating rooms universally available? What if, instead of infrastructure heavy environments, we just focused on the patient and where they needed surgery?” asks Dr. Debbie Lin Teodorescu, Founder and President of SurgiBox. Dr. Debbie is a practicing physician, researcher and innovator working to improve patient outcomes. “I always knew I wanted a career that would give me the privilege of bringing help and comfort to fellow human beings in some of the worst times of their lives – and over time I saw how I could do so in different ways, both directly as a physician and, where current capability fails, by pushing the envelope as an engineer, innovator and researcher.” This was the start of her journey founding SurgiBox.

“SurgiBox was born out of our physician/engineering/humanitarian team’s collective pool of personal experiences trying to provide Good Care in a wide range of austere settings – field hospitals in post-earthquake Haiti, converted warehouses in Afghanistan, district hospitals in Cameroon, even American ICUs for patients too sick to get to proper surgical facilities.” The crosscutting theme for Dr. Debbie and her team was clear: patients deserve better than what circumstances traditionally allow, and safe surgery needs to be available at the point of need. “A crushed arm can become either a quickly-fixed, quickly-forgotten event, or the start of lifelong pain and disability – depending on the timely availability and quality of surgical care,” says Dr. Debbie. SurgiBox, a battery powered inflatable, sterile, operating room in a backpack, now provides safe surgery anytime, anyplace.

Dr. Debbie with colleague Macauley outside the SurgiBox cleanroom. Photo Credit: SurgiBox 

While still in medical school, Debbie built a collaboration among MIT, Mass General Hospital, EssentialTech, and HealthNovations into SurgiBox, the operating room in a backpack system improving field surgery safety. “As an Asian-American woman, I grew up learning to work hard, keep my head down, and be infinitely accommodating. As it turns out, humanitarian innovation definitely leverages that good work ethic, but has forced me to speak up for what I believe in, and set down firm boundaries,” says Dr. Debbie. “Innovation requires collaboration and making sure that women’s voices are part of those critical discussions. Finding solutions to complex problems means that women, especially women from varied backgrounds and lived experiences, must be championed as leaders.”


Fawziah Almmar, Humanitarian and Associate Professor at Amran University, Yemen

Professor Fawziah Almmar has over 10 years of professional experience in the field of social science research including educational and psychological assessment, gender studies, and mental health. A decade of experience working to address mental-health challenges, Fawziah, in collaboration with the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, is working to alleviate and treat PTSD among Yemeni children. 

The ongoing conflict in Yemen has left an estimated 79% of children experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Fawziah, in partnership with the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, are working to upgrade skills and knowledge of school counselors to address the needs of middle and high school students with PTSD and related mental health issues. “The thing that inspires me to work with the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation is the distinguished aims of the PTSD project which is related to my interested version,” says Fawziah. Yemen has been labelled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with over 80% of the population in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Ongoing conflict, economic instability, and the COVID-19 crisis all compound mental-health stressors of civilians. This innovative project will help raise awareness about mental health services and de-stigmatize care seeking. 


Ramona Scherrer, Operational Research Officer at The MENTOR Initiative, Kurdistan Iraq / North Syria

“War and disease are close companions. We’ve seen the devastating consequences that conflicts have on the health of refugees and displaced people,” says epidemiologist Ramona Scherrer, Operational Research Officer at the MENTOR Initiative. Working in Iraq and Syria, Ramona and her team are working to control outbreaks of leishmaniasis by scientifically evaluating innovative approaches. With additional support from the Humanitarian Grand Challenge, they will bring this innovative work to Yemen where they will test novel measures to control malaria and dengue outbreaks. “Where health infrastructure has been destroyed and under-resourced by years of conflict, we often see a lack of preparedness in being able to treat outbreaks of diseases. Prevention is crucial to stop the spreading of infectious diseases and causing further harm to communities, who are already living under appalling conditions.”

Having always been fascinated by human disease, Ramona expanded her background in biomedical research with knowledge and experience in epidemiology and public health to understand challenges of disease control from different angles. Working with the MENTOR Initiative, she’s now contributing to the development of new effective preventive measures that result in a lasting impact by working hand in hand with hard-to-reach and crisis-affected populations who are often not reached by traditional aid interventions. “The MENTOR Initiative offered me the chance to step into the humanitarian sector at the interface between research and project implementation on the ground and thus, to follow my aim and to learn at the forefront how to evaluate innovations and to adopt evidence-based approaches in emergency settings to prevent suffering and save lives.” 


Dr. Bilqis Mohamed Jubari, Family Counseling & Development Foundation, Yemen

“One in three Yemenis suffers from a mental disorder. Most of them are women,” says psychotherapist  Dr. Bilqis Jubari. “The ongoing conflict has resulted in over 80% of the population in Yemen in need of humanitarian support. The effects on the mental health of these people are dramatic.” Working as an associate professor at Sana’a University, psychotherapist Dr. Bilqis Jubari is working to pioneering public mental health supports and systems in Yemen. 

Where ongoing war and COVID-19 intensify the psychological needs and trauma of Yemenis, Dr. Jubari and her team at the Family Counselling and Development Foundation, in partnership with Marie Stopes International Yemen, are pioneering mental health and psychosocial supports in Yemen. Yemen has only 46 psychiatrists, one for every 600,000 people. “To meet even a fraction of the needs is challenging,” says Dr. Jubari. “Yemeni culture can be very conservative, mental health support are still sometimes veiled in taboos and shame. We’re trying to change the narrative, by building trust and helping people get the treatment and support they need.” While the majority of humanitarian funding goes to aid, shelter and food, there is an increasing demand for mental health services. This is much needed, according to Dr. Jubari. “Investing in mental health support in humanitarian crisis is just as important as food and shelter. You cannot separate a person’s psychological suffering from the economic, social and security crises they are faced with. They must go hand in hand.”

With support from the Humanitarian Grand Challenge, Dr. Jubari and her team have partnered with MSI Yemen to train healthcare workers in Yemen on high quality modern methods for providing healthcare, whilst in tandem providing critical mental health support for those delivering care these challenging settings. Working with over 90 providers in the South of Yemen, a large portion of Dr. Jubari’s work is focused on prevention. “Working to train more psychiatrists, more psychotherapists, I hope will fill the gaps in mental health care and support in Yemen. We need to be proactive and do it now.”


Dr. Iffat Zafar Aga, Co-Founder and COO of Sehat Kahani, Pakistan

Physician and co-founder of leading telemedicine platform start-up Sehat Kahani, Dr. Iffat Zafar Aga is working to leverage telemedicine to virtually connect conflict-affected and rural people in Pakistan with healthcare providers in less than 60 seconds. 

While 70% of medical students in Pakistan are female, for cultural reasons, over 50% of female doctors stop practicing medicine permanently when they get pregnant. Dr. Zafar’s inspiration for the innovation came from a similar experience. “I was working in the pharma sector where my husband and I ended up losing our first child in a premature birth. When I conceived the second time, without even thinking I quit my job. Our co-founder, Dr. Sara Saeed, also had a similar experience while working in radiology; when she became pregnant, she had to quit work.” Upon meeting, they realized women should not have to choose between having a family or a career, which laid the foundation for Sehat Kahani. 


Photo Credit: Sehat Kahani


With support provided through the Humanitarian Grand Challenge, Dr. Zafar and her team are bringing women back into the workforce, empowering them to practice medicine through flexible telehealth technology, and connecting them to rural and conflict-affected communities that lack access to essential healthcare. “You have all these women trained as physicians and specialists with no clinic or hospital to go to, and you have patients who cannot access hospitals, why not connect the two over technology?” The pandemic became a turning point for Sehat Kahani’s overall growth. While there were many challenges, the overall acceptability of accessing a physician online grew tremendously within Pakistan. Individuals who were previously concerned with connecting with a doctor online felt safer doing so, instead of visiting a facility potentially exposing them to COVID-19. The company has recently raised over $1M USD pre series round – the first female led telemedicine company in Pakistan to do so. Through its portfolio of e-health clinics, a telemedicine-based mobile application for both retail as well as corporate users, Sehat Kahani has facilitated over, to date, 800,000+ consultations through telemedicine, impacting 3.5 million lives.


Nahreen Husna Ahmed MD, MPH,  Assistant Professor, Head of Ultrasound, Bridge to Health; POCUS Training & Med Ed, Medglobal 

“At a young age I was inspired by the story of my Paternal Grandfather, a surgeon in Bangladesh who worked tirelessly for others, killed during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 while treating patients,” recalls Dr. Nahreen Ahmed. “The legacy of his efforts to reduce health disparities paired with visiting Bangladesh at a young age and witnessing staggering health inequities first-hand were enough to spark a fire within to follow a similar pathway in medicine.” Following in her grandfather’s footsteps, Dr. Ahmed  decided to pursue medicine, with specific focus on Pulmonary and Critical Care and the newly developing point-of-care Ultrasound. “On a trip to Bangladesh in 2018 I joined MedGlobal as a volunteer in their work in the Rohingya Camps and have been working with them since, mostly drawn to their mission of capacity building and advocating for local clinician voices. Shortly after I was introduced to Bridge To Health and their ultrasound project in Uganda and continued to work with them given their dynamic team and focus on impactful research and advancing tech in low-resource settings. It seemed only natural that the paths of both organizations would overlap to now create this wonderful project that we are collaboratively rolling out in Yemen.”

Dr. Nahreen Ahmed working with patients. Photo Credit: Bridge to Health.


Presently, Yemen is experiencing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with an estimated 80% of the population in need of assistance or protection. Consequently, the health system is on the verge of collapse resulting from a critical shortage of healthcare providers and functional health facilities disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations such as women and children. Additionally, diagnostic imaging is rarely accessible in Yemen, leaving healthcare providers with little support. To address this gap, Dr. Ahmed and her teams at Bridge to Health and MedGlobal have developed a point of care ultrasound training program, supporting and virtually training pediatric health staff to use devices to improve patient diagnosis and outcomes. As head of the Ultrasound team, Dr. Ahmed reflects on the lack of women in leadership positions in the humanitarian and innovation sectors. “I believe that part of that is the challenge we as female clinicians face in feeling supported to pursue what is considered an atypical career path, for instance, the often unpredictable need to travel makes it challenging for Clinician Moms to participate. I would love to see more representation across the field of BIPOC Women especially in leadership roles. Women constantly uplift each other in the work place, we are our strongest advocates and supporters however that does not always equate to leadership roles being made available. The importance of BIPOC representation is especially crucial in the humanitarian field as so many of our sites include communities of color.”


Wafa Alrakhtawan , Health Officer at Hand in Hand for Aid and Development, Syria

While the humanitarian field has traditionally been a male-dominated field, women continue to be champions of it, representing over 40% of humanitarian workers. “As a young woman who fled from Syria, I find that working in the humanitarian field revives the hope inside me that the challenges created by the conflict will end one day and that my work will alleviate the suffering and pain that we all suffer as Syrians,” says Wafa Alrakhtawan, Health Officer at Hand in Hand for Aid and Development. 


Photo Credit: Hand in Hand for Aid and Development


Over a decade of conflict in Syria has resulted in an overburdened healthcare system and shortage of staff. Where needs remain unmet, and supply chains are disrupted by COVID-19 and conflict, Wafa and her team at Hand in Hand for Aid and Development are locally manufacturing prosthetics and orthotics, working to meet the accessibility needs of people living with disabilities. “Providing support to people with disabilities does not end with them but makes them productive and effective people and contributes to the society improvement and this is what the HiHFAD’s team has been doing in Syria through various projects.” HiHFAD’s comprehensive physical and mental program will support people living with disabilities by focusing on rehabilitation. Women, particularly Syrian women like Wafa, are at the forefront of solutions for civilians affected by the conflict. “Despite all the critical circumstances and difficulties, [Syrian women] have been everywhere to do what they can. This reinforced my belief that we have a role that no one else can fill.”

  • Zeba Tasci