Baroness Cox’s question in the HoL on aid – 10/03/2020

11 March 2020

Question: Baroness Cox, Crossbench

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Sugg, on their appointments, which we warmly welcome.

As I will be speaking about older women, perhaps I should declare an interest, given my age of 82. However, I wish to focus on the achievements of older women working with small non-governmental organisations—NGOs—such as the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, or HART, which I founded in 2004. These women achieve transformational changes for their communities in very remote locations not reached by major aid organisations for political or security reasons, or because of difficulty of access. We in HART are always humbled and inspired by the resourcefulness and resilience of these indigenous older women in very challenging situations. In some cases we are privileged to work with other NGOs also committed to working with and for isolated communities. May I invite your Lordships to make two visits to appreciate the achievements of these valiant older women?

First, please come with me to Sudan’s Nuba mountains in the years between the signing of the peace agreement in 2005 and the outbreak of further military offensives by the Khartoum regime after the independence of South Sudan. Life was formidably challenging for the widows whose husbands had died in the war waged by Khartoum from 1989 to 2005. Buildings in the Nuba mountains were destroyed by bombing, it is harsh terrain, water is difficult to access, and survival for the widows and their families was very difficult.

We in HART visited these areas, and we always ask our local partners to identify their priorities for aid. Those widows collected wild fruits, and they asked for assistance to help to establish centres where they could preserve them and sell them as jams or juices. We were able to provide some funding. When we returned, we were humbled and thrilled to see the superb brick huts they had built, with good equipment and even beautiful flowerbeds. There were six centres in different parts of the Nuba mountains, and I wish your Lordships could have seen the widows’ pride and their smiles as they showed us their achievements. One lady had even learned enough English to welcome us in our own language, shyly but graciously.

Also, their effective initiatives brought respect and new recognition in their communities, such as appointments to village councils. Life was transformed for these courageous widows, who would have remained in abject poverty and been totally marginalised had they not received help to realise their potential and the dignity of self-sufficiency. Very sadly, when fighting broke out again in the subsequent civil war, at least one of the widows was killed and their work was destroyed. We hope that, with the improvement in the situation in Sudan, survivors will be able to restart their inspirational work.

Secondly, please come with me to the remotest regions in the jungles and mountains of Burma’s Chin state. It is so remote that, when a small team from HART visited in 2015, there were no roads. We had to travel the last 20 hours in a jeep on a way hacked through the jungle, with a 2,000-foot precipice on one side and a cliff on the other—but it was worth every minute. The region was so inaccessible that there was no healthcare, and childhood mortality rates were indescribably high. It was HART’s privilege to support a brave young man, known as Dr Sasa, while he was studying to qualify as a doctor in Armenia in order to return to his people in Chin state and establish a training centre for community health workers, so that they could take life-saving healthcare to their villages, saving the lives of eight out of 10 people who would previously have died.

People in remote areas will die of cancer and old age, of course, but the conditions that cause the highest mortality rates are those such as malaria, diarrhoea and infections from cuts from bamboo. The community health workers were able to prevent and treat these. Dr Sasa’s work was then supported by another small NGO, Health & Hope; now, more than 1,000 health workers continue to save the lives of eight out of 10 people in a catchment area of 250,000 people in remote villages.

However, problems with maternal and child health persisted, as childbirth was managed by traditional birth attendants—TBAs—with no relevant knowledge. This was not their fault; no knowledge was available. Inevitably, maternal and infant mortality rates were tragically high, until networking established another small NGO, BirthLink; it was established by Kathy Mellor, a highly qualified neonatal nurse and specialist, and her team. They went to train the TBAs in appropriate maternity and infant care. She and her midwife colleagues often had to ride on motorbikes for 17 hours through the jungle to reach the location for training. The TBAs—many of them local elderly women, including grandmothers—have now become so clinically competent that the orphanage that cared for the numerous infants whose mothers had died in childbirth has now been closed. There is no need for it.

In conclusion, I record my admiration for the courage, resourcefulness and compassion of the women whom it has been our great privilege to help as they achieve life-changing developments for their communities. Can the Minister give an assurance that aid for older women such as these will remain a priority—or, indeed, will be one, as I am not sure it is now? Will DfID work to find ways to provide aid for small NGOs working in challenging remote areas where indigenous partners, many of them elderly women, demonstrate outstanding resilience, compassion and commitment, saving countless lives and bringing hope and health to communities that were previously unreached, and left to suffer and die in ignorance and isolation?

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