The challenge of choice
Felicity Gapes is a New Zealand Red Cross international delegate who specializes in the field of health. Her Red Cross deployments since 2004 have taken her to the Pacific, Somalia, South Sudan and Myanmar. She has recently been awarded the highest international nursing distinction, the Florence Nightingale Medal, for her work in regions of conflict and political instability.
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I always wondered how I would feel if I was ever robbed at gun point. But when it happened to me, I was surprised of my feeling of complete and utter anger.

Their words roughly translated to “give us your money.”

I could feel the wad of cash under my shirt, and hesitated. The money was to pay staff at the clinic - health workers with almost nothing - and to fund the polio vaccination campaign – one of the reasons I was in Darfur, Sudan in 2008-2009 in the first place. As a health delegate, transporting vaccines to the clinics in conflict areas was a major part of my role.

As I handed over the cash, anger fizzed in me.

I felt anger when they told us to unload the life-saving vaccines into the burning sun. Anger at their treatment of the health field worker who was there with me. Anger that, during Ramadan, they would make a hard-working midwife who was fasting stand in the heat and cause her so much stress and discomfort.

I knew that resisting would be a dangerous decision, threatening the lives of myself and my colleagues. Being a nurse is all about making decisions. Right from when I was a student nurse in the hospital in Whangarei, New Zealand, we had to make life-altering choices. Without wanting to sound dramatic, the decisions we make can affect people’s lives.

The difference when working in a humanitarian context is that many of the patients you are working with are affected by conflict. Quite often, you are their voice. You are the one who is advocating for them, on their behalf. You are the one trying to create a safe space for them.

On another mission in 2013-2014 in South Sudan, that meant engaging with military medical command to ensure all soldiers in the hospital were disarmed. Because if nurses become injured, we can’t provide vital health care to those who need it the most.

During the years there were many times, when making decisions, that I had to think about security. But first and foremost, it was about the people; about the patients that I was dealing with. How will the choice I make affect their life, their health?

Decisions about safety. Decisions about logistics, terrain, climate or the reality of the situation. There are many difficult decisions to make. You always second guess. You always look back.

But, thankfully, we are always surrounded by a team. People working in the country are phenomenal, particularly the women. The women I was working with in Somalia late 2009 were some of the strongest women I have ever met in my life.

My deployment to Somalia was as a Primary Health Delegate, supporting health care facilities and mobile teams in cooperation with Somalia Red Crescent Society. During what was extended to a three-year mission, in the face of an escalating humanitarian crisis where millions of people faced extreme famine, our plans and priorities shifted.

Yet, consistently, the women I worked alongside showed courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. There was one woman in particular. She worked in an environment many people could never imagine. She negotiated access to communities who were in grey zones or close to conflict zones to meet the humanitarian needs of a severe famine.

For me to meet women like her, to be working with them and to involve them in the decision-making process, made each challenge that little bit easier.

This work is about decisions. To travel for several hours a day through difficult terrain, transporting life-saving vaccinations. To support someone during traumatic childbirth in the midst of a challenging security environment. To advocate for the protection of health care workers.

Thankfully, when I made the decision to hand over the cash in Darfur in 2013, they only left with the money after some calm negotiations by our wonderful drivers. The polio campaign could go ahead as planned.

After all those years working for the New Zealand Red Cross I know that not every decision is easy. But seeing the impact of this work means I am able to rest knowing I have done everything I could.

Felicity Gapes

New Zealand, 2004

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Analysis shows that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic than men’s jobs: Women make up 39% of global employment but account for 54% of overall job losses as of May 2020.

– McKinsey 2020

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