International Women’s Day: “We have great opportunities to carry the voice of vulnerable people”

7 Mar 2014

Uganda: Sarah Otuku meets with members of the Acholi community during a needs assessment visit. Credit: OCHA
On International Women's Day, OCHA's Sarah Otuku speaks about her passion for aid work, despite the dangers and tragedies she has faced.

On International Women's Day (8 March), OCHA is highlighting some of the remarkable women working on the front lines of some of the world's toughest emergencies.

Read the other International Women's Day Profiles

Sarah Otuku is from the city of Lira in northern Uganda. She joined OCHA in Uganda in 2006, working on a team that was responding to the humanitarian fallout from the prolonged and vicious fighting between the Ugandan Government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

After five years, Sarah decided it was time for a change. Not one for easy assignments, in July 2011 she took a job with OCHA’s office in Afghanistan. Sarah is a Humanitarian Affairs Officer – a benign title for a job with so many demands.

“I support coordination efforts and the development and review of humanitarian appeals; I produce policy and advocacy documents and support analysis and reporting. And I’m the focal point on issues related to humanitarian access, as well as protection of civilians.”

Speaking on behalf of people facing crises

Her passion, she says, is the opportunity to advocate on behalf of people affected by disaster and conflict in Afghanistan.

“My favourite part of my job is the opportunity to ‘speak’ on behalf of vulnerable groups through the various protection reports and advocacy documents I work on,” she says. “I always feel that as OCHA we have great opportunities to carry the voice of vulnerable people to all types of audiences – to donors, to aid groups, to the media.

“I always treasure these opportunities and try to do my very best to highlight issues of concern as I know it’s an opportunity that should not be missed.”

Sarah has worked in two of the toughest humanitarian contexts on the planet. She knows the dangers that aid workers face. She knows this perhaps more than most.

Challenge and loss

In March 2011, during a mission to Moroto in remote northern Uganda, she contracted a sudden infection. “Within minutes I was in a lot of pain. My blood vessels were blocked and I couldn’t walk,” she recalls. Sarah is indebted to the quick thinking of her colleagues from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN security team. Without them, she is sure she would have lost her legs.

But her greatest challenge came at the beginning of this year. On 17 January 2014, a Taliban suicide bomber and gunmen attacked a Lebanese restaurant in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Two of Sarah’s best friends – Basra Hassan and Nasreen Khan – were among the 21 people killed.

“They were the ‘family’ I had in Afghanistan and we shared a bond that kept us happy, hopeful and determined. They were my exercise and security buddies. We watched each other’s backs.”

Their friendship helped them cope with security concerns that aid workers face in Afghanistan.

“We would jointly prepare and share several ‘comfort meals’ during the occasional tense and gloomy security moments – to keep our selves occupied and stay focused. I learnt a lot from them.”

“It has been a reminder to me that, while we continue to do humanitarian work, we carry the heaviest commitment. Sometimes humanitarians pay the highest price.”

Read more International Women's Day profiles

Senait Arefaine: "The work that we do makes a difference"

Federica D’Andreagiovanni: "Out motto was 'Stay. Protect. Deliver.'"

Shoko Arakaki: "There is not a single day that I haven't learned something"

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