Women enjoy challenging careers at UNHCR

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Protection Officers like Shirin love what they do at UNHCR

Meet Shirin Aktar, 36, from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Shirin works as a Protection Associate, and has spent twelve years with UNHCR. She hopes to stay working in this rewarding role for her entire career.

Choosing to be an aid worker

As a student, Shirin originally started working with a UNHCR team in 2001 interviewing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, which is her home country.

"I speak English and the Chittagong dialect, which is similar to Rohingya. We talk like them and we dress like them. When I heard their stories, why they fled, how they are living here, I just said, ‘Yes, I want to be an aid worker.’ I wanted to help," she says.

A rewarding career path

As a protection associate, Shirin meets with UNHCR’s partners and with community leaders at what were then the two official refugee camps in Bangladesh: Kutupalong and Nayapara. She also works in the area of sexual and gender-based violence, or SGBV.

"I work mostly with women and children. Around 80-85 per cent of reported cases are of domestic violence. Then there are a smaller number of cases of rape, sexual assault, trafficking and child marriage. We work with the survivors and report the cases to the appropriate authorities. It’s rewarding when I can close a case," she clarifies.

"It is challenging because the community’s values are quite conservative. It is socially acceptable to beat your wife. I feel upset and angry when I hear about husbands beating their wives for issues that could be minimized by discussion. They might say, ‘She didn’t ask my permission to go to her parents’ house,’ or ‘She didn’t ask me if she could go out’ – silly things. We are working with the communities towards changing that behaviour and mindset, particularly among men and boys. Compared to 12 years ago, there has been so much improvement. Women are participating more, they taking part in decision-making and education. There have been a lot of positive changes, which I am very happy about."

Fulfilling work at UNHCR

Currently in the middle of the biggest emergency the region has had in decades, Shiri is witnessing thousands of people are fleeing to Bangladesh in her UNHCR protection role.

"Children often get separated from their parents in the confusion. In response, we opened a safe space for children at the camps, and information booths to help reunite them with their parents," adds Shirin.

"In the first weeks of the crisis I got a call from one of our partners at one of the camps, who said, ‘Come, we have a five- to six-year-old girl here. She’s lost her parents and she’s crying.’ Immediately I just ran to our office. She was sitting in a chair and crying. I picked her up and held her. I could see in front of my eyes my daughter’s face and she was crying. They had become separated along the road to the camp. Straight away we put out a call over the loudspeaker, but couldn’t locate her parents. We then took her to the spot where she lost her mother and father, but we still couldn’t find them. Finally, along the road outside the camp we found them. When I saw them meeting, hugging each other and crying, I thought: ‘This is the best day for me."

A challenging career

Following a large influx of refugees last August-September, Shirin admitts her role is often very tough.

"There were thousands of people arriving each day. It was the monsoon season and it was raining hard. There were a lot of pregnant women and women with small children out in the open, with nothing. At first it was overwhelming, but then we got to work. We opened the community centre at the camp for them. There were 400-500 pregnant women in there, as well as women with babies and children. Once they were out of the rain we could start referring them to the medical facilities, and provide food. Now we are getting more support. I wouldn’t say I feel relieved yet, but it is getting better," she adds.

"When I look to the future, I know what I want: For as long as I can, I want to be with UNHCR."

UNHCR encourages a diverse workplace

Women are encouraged to apply for roles with this humanitarian organisation because UNHCR actively recruits for a diverse workforce regardless of background, race, gender or sexual orientation. 

You can join Shirin and her talented colleagues via many exciting and important roles at UNHCR. Take a look at these current vacancies and enjoy a career that could truly make an impact.

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Disclosure: Where Women Work researches and publishes insightful evidence about how its paid member organizations support women's equality.

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