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Dr Helen Durham breaks glass ceiling at ICRC


Australian Red Cross' Dr Helen Durham is the first woman to head International Law and Policy at ICRC

Wednesday June 11, 2014

Helen Durham

Article published in The Age, by Kelly Chandler 11/6/2014

She may be the most senior humanitarian in the world to be the muse for a pop song, but Helen Durham also is the first woman and the first Australian to move into a big corner office at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva.

"I think I'm almost more proud of being the first woman than the first Australian," Dr Durham says from the North Fitzroy home she shares with husband Greg Arnold, of rock band Things of Stone and Wood, and their two children. They're all moving to Switzerland for four years from July 1.

"The laws of war are seen as a traditionally masculine area. I always thought there's a much deeper feminist analysis of the laws of war, above and beyond rape as a war crime," Dr Durham says.

Given that she was instrumental in making rape a weapon of war as a law student, she means business when she says that powerful men don't own the decisions around who can blow up what, or where.

It's often women and children who suffer when civilian infrastructure like water or sewage systems are destroyed in combat, she says. They're the ones who die of dysentery or must walk further into dangerous territory to get clean water.

Dr Durham describes herself as a "gentle irritant to decision making", and she's read enough instruction manuals about weapons calibre and the like to hold her own in technical arguments with military minds in her new role as one of only five directors of ICRC. She is responsible for international law and policy.

"Freak out," says the T-shirt she wears with a stripy top underneath. I find it hard to believe she would, although she insists she can just as easily drop her name-tag in the toilet as the next keynote speaker at a fundraiser, and often feels like a "complete dag".

More often than most, she meets people who could be guilty of war crimes. I ask how she handles it. Pilates, she says, and stops herself from giving an example of a Red Cross visit to check on the welfare of five men in a jail in Asia. There are many stories that ICRC people stop themselves from telling: neutrality is part of their appeal, and a fundamental principle of the organisation that was founded by bearded Swiss humanitarians in 1863.

It's the thing that eases them into the cracks of the world's most desperate conflicts, a unique mandate to ensure that people are treated humanely, no matter which side they are on or what they've done.

"Labels are complex. When Red Cross visited Nelson Mandela in jail some called him a terrorist - in other cases the war criminals we visit are seen by some as national heroes," Dr Durham says.

It takes strength to suspend a highly-tuned sense of right and wrong and focus on the humanitarian task at hand. To pass on a message to the mother of a man in jail who may or may not have done those unnamed things, for example.

"You have to hold on to that concept more than just lightly, intellectually. You sort of have to hold on to it physically," she says.

Over time Dr Durham has realised that, to be outraged, you need information. "The world was a little more black and white when I was younger," she says, having spent her youth in creative activism.

She grew up in Eltham, her curiosity about the world switched on as a nine-year-old while living in Bangkok with her family. She went back to Thailand after finishing her law degree to support a women's collective, but quickly learned that the sex workers she was there to help had most of the answers.

"I came from Melbourne full of feminist theory and immediately realised that the most important way you can influence change is to start off by listening," she says.

At university she chaired the Australian Committee for Investigation into War Crimes. When she asked a friend who was in Sarajevo what the women who had been raped during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s wanted, she was told to clarify that rape was a war crime.

She and her team took action, gathering horrifying evidence for the tribunal established in The Hague for this conflict. After graduating she joined the Red Cross delegation in Rome negotiating for rape to become a war crime at the new International Criminal Court. It's taken 20 years but rape now officially is a war crime.

"So many people were involved along the way. We started at the grassroots, collecting information from survivors to take to prosecutors at The Hague, but it went much further than that. I followed it up to the international policy level, making sure the laws stayed true to the initial aim," Dr Durham says.

She wants to give her nine-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son the same opportunities to engage with global issues. Her son, however, is worried about leaving his footy team, and her songwriter husband (who penned the 1992 national hit Happy Birthday Helen in her honour) has resigned from his job as head of the music industry program at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE.

"Anything grand in human history or useful in your life comes at a cost to someone else who needs you," Dr Durham says. She will miss her daughter's birthday soon after she starts her new job, as she'll be in Sudan for the first of many faraway field trips near many ground zeros.

There were times in her early career as a mother and international humanitarian lawyer when Dr Durham met militias (though she calls them irregular armed forces), with a stream of dried baby spew down the back of her shirt. And the act of getting cricket whites white has defeated her more than once.

"There's this discourse going round in the mainstream papers, Sunday Wife as we call it, about women and work, and work-life balance, and they tend to line women up against each other so everyone feels a bit uncomfy. Women, ladies, chicks, let's just be kind to each other," she says.

Sometimes she'll climb into her pyjamas and rush through Rapunzel with her daughter before bed, then put on some lipstick and dial into a teleconference about cluster munitions. Other times her kids will turn around in a department store to find their mum crouching near the basketball shoes on a call to The Hague, fingers crossed that there will be no price checks over the PA.

"If you want to be a working mum you have to realise that at times you'll be a little bit crap at everything," says Dr Durham, who has held various roles with the Red Cross movement since 1996 and also is a senior fellow at Melbourne Law School.

"Sometimes you need to give 100 per cent to work. My example is extreme, but if you're dealing with issues of child soldiers you're going to sacrifice going to school fetes. But then it's really important to sit with your son when he's unwell," she says.

Kelly Chandler worked with Dr Helen Durham at Australian Red Cross in the late 2000s.

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