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01 December 2009

From Australia to Chad…on moments that take your breath away

Hello again.  This week I’ve asked a colleague based in Australia – Kathryn Wightman-Beaven – to guest blog.  I speak with Kathryn regularly as part of our efforts to both formally and informally connect PwC’s diversity and inclusion efforts with our corporate responsibility work.  I’ve never felt more proud to be an employee of PwC than the day I found out that via our 10-year anniversary celebration (The Power of 10 campaign) our firms and people had donated US$4 million to a collaborative project to educate the children of Darfur – the largest corporate cash donation in the history of the United Nations Refugee Agency.  Below is Kathryn’s moving description about her recent visit to Chad to view the progress of this project, including reflections about shifting gender roles in the camp and the moment that took her breath away. 

“The world of technology I often think has passed me by.  People talk about tweeting, blogging, widgets, facebook – I see the lips move but not sure if I hear what they are saying, so when I was asked to be a ‘guest blogger’ on the gender agenda blog, I had this strange sense that I would be opening my thoughts to the wider world that I could not see – yet they would be getting a glimpse of me.  And as I thought about this in more detail, I realized that this wasn’t so bad - the experiences I have had over the past month or two or indeed past few years should be shared.  After all, you never know what chain reactions may occur…..

In my role as Director for Global Corporate Responsibility and as the project lead for our flagship project Educating the Children of Darfur, I was fortunate to travel to Chad with Rick Millen, to visit the refugee camps and see first hand the difference the collective impact of PwC and the funds raised during the Power of 10 campaign.

I’ve been fortunate in my life and career to date.  I’ve worked with disadvantaged, disillusioned young people, alcoholics, constant re-offenders, people with long term drug addictions, young women with advanced stages of ovarian cancer.  All these interactions didn’t just give me a sense of perspective, but also grounding and in all my roles I try to use this to effect change inside out.  My path has crossed with many others; a special few have left a mark.  I might add that most have been women; women that have demonstrated an immense amount of courage, determination, humour and vision.

So I thought I was prepared to go to Chad.  I couldn’t have been more wrong!  I’m sure everyone has images of refugee camps in their minds. Nothing quite prepares you.  I had heard many stories from the UNHCR about the women in the camps, their roles, marriage, children and I was keen to explore this further.

UNHCR

I was struck by the stark and barren nature of the camps; on the border with Sudan and in the middle of the desert reside 20,000 refugees.  There are 12 camps along the border.  Each refugee starts their new life with a plastic shelter and the basic rations – from there they build their lives.  As most refugees have been in the camps since 2004, when you walk into the camps we were greeted not by a sea of blue UNHCR plastic sheets but mud houses – built bottom up from the ground.  On the whole of it, the women have built the houses. Each house is a home to a family that might comprise immediate children and the extended family.   The houses are immaculate.  It was interesting to see the stark contrast between the mud houses and the concrete built new schools with corrugated iron roofs.   The schools had been built by the men and the homes by the women.

On many occasions we heard that in Darfur the men would be the head of the household, so as they fled the conflict, they left behind their livelihood and their jobs and arriving in Chad the men felt disempowered. The women on the other hand took a more leading role – building the home (literally) looking after the children, maybe becoming a teacher, collecting firewood and water.  The social hierarchy started to change but with that brings unrest as the men struggled to come to terms with their reduced role and in some cases it might lead to domestic violence.  I compare that with my own circumstances where my husband runs his own business from home and looks after our 20 month old daughter and I work full time – this arrangement gives us flexibility and balances work and home without compromise.  We take a joint approach to the responsibilities we have.  This is not the case in the camps.  So it was interesting to learn that some of the girls are now starting to see life differently – they don’t all want to marry young and have many children.  In fact, one young lady told us that she may not marry until she is in her 20’s!  Can you imagine their horror when I told them that I was in my late (ish) 30’s when I had my daughter, Charity, and that she was at home with her dad whilst I was in Chad!  A role reversal that some found hard to comprehend!  For me it seemed quite normal – in fact a necessity.  For me to explain and talk to Charity about the roles we play in society, our global obligations, the importance of social change and the role that women play in taking change forward meant I have to do this with integrity and that meant being away from her for two and a half weeks to visit the camps and see the project PwC is supporting.

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away”

Whilst in the camp, I spent a lot of the time talking (as much as I could in English and very poor French) to the women and the children.  Actually, the children just wanted to play with me, touch my hands and laugh!  The women were more reserved – often they would sit at the back of the room and say very little.  On one occasion, after a meeting with the community leaders had finished, I wandered down to the back of the classroom to chat with the women –as we sat and laughed at my awful French and non existent Arabic, one of the ladies asked me as she waved her hands towards me, to take her baby back to Australia to lead a better life.  This was a moment that took my breath away.  I have reflected on that moment many times since then – what must have gone through her mind to ask me that and how bleak she must have felt abut the future to consider such a sacrifice.  We often talk about the PwC Experience and I have many times tried to put myself in her shoes to understand why she asked me this question.  When I think about the role of women in our organisation, society at large and our communities – this experience and this woman in particular has given me a different perspective.  We talk many times about the business imperative of a diverse workforce, role models and the emotional intelligence diversity brings – this experience brings a different perspective to diversity and reminds me not to lose sight of some of the fundamental issues.

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.”

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