This International Women’s Day, we remind ourselves that without Red Cross women, we would be nowhere, and we celebrate their immense, impactful and ongoing contribution and commitment to humanitarianism both on our shores and abroad.
Put simply, we wouldn’t exist were it not for women. Specifically, the fortitude of Helen Munro Ferguson, the woman who – back in 1914 – began it all, and all those who followed in her footsteps.
Only 12 years prior, women didn’t even have the right to vote. Women barely had a voice in their own governance and futures, let alone in other people’s. But our female founder chose to challenge this. She voiced a rallying cry; a call to arms that was heard and answered by women all across the nation. Women of all backgrounds and abilities.
This was just nine days after the outbreak of the first world war. A war famous for – if only by way of necessity – showing that women could do the jobs of men; jobs that they otherwise would have been denied. In WWI, women were as much on the frontlines as men, protecting both lives and livelihoods, and holding the candle for hope and humanity in our darkest hours.
This is what the Red Cross symbolises: hope, and humanity. And throughout our proud history, our women have modelled this: from the modest ballroom-come-workshop that Helen set up for war relief efforts in Melbourne’s Government House in 1914, to the women who currently make up more than 70% of our organisation who have shown up, stood up, and held up through a year that will go down in history as one of humanity’s most trying.
Crises exacerbate existing gender inequalities, but entire communities benefit when women are equipped to lead. And the national impact over the past 106 years has been immense. The past year has seen more demand for our services than any other time since WWII - and the majority of those services have been delivered by women.
Red Cross women choose to challenge. Challenge the status quo; challenge the brute forces that the disasters of 2020 threw at them; challenge the rising waters of misogyny, bigotry, and inequality. They challenge the belief that we’re ‘doing enough’ – because our Red Cross women always go above and beyond and push us to do better, be better.
At Australian Red Cross we continue to lead efforts to promote women leaders across the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. In our region, we have committed to achieving equal representation of women in leadership and governance roles, and women are stepping forward to lead amongst our partners such as Solomon Islands, Mongolia and Fiji Red Cross. We are providing support to IFRC initiatives to help National Societies address systemic barriers and promote gender diversity. And we are supporting women leaders in the region as a founding member of the GLOW Red network and have pledged to ensure that women increasingly lead the Movement at the highest levels.
We know that almost every nameable disaster or crisis in the world has a disproportionate effect on women. We know that even more deeply affected are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, women from refugee backgrounds, women from migrant backgrounds, women with disabilities, and women in our LGBTQIA communities. So a world where women – all women - have equal rights and opportunities, a world where women and girls do not have to fear for their safety, and men and boys are not constrained by outdated gender stereotypes is a world that Red Cross women have worked towards since our inception.
Today, and every day, we celebrate and honour those Red Cross women who came before us, those who stand beside us now, and those who will come after.
Happy International Women’s Day.