A Woman’s Work

In the chaos of disaster, natural or human-made, the first step beyond survival is often made by women.

By Cassandra Nelson July 19, 2010 Published in the August 2010 issue of Portland Monthly


Nearly a decade ago, I began a journey—from a marriage, from a career editing a New York-based women’s magazine, and from what had been all the familiar trappings of life—that has taken me to 42 countries, 8 war zones, 5 natural disasters, and countless humanitarian crises. As the spokesperson and field photographer for Portland-based Mercy Corps, I often have been among the first aid workers on the scene, be it war or an earthquake. The conditions, emotions, and actions can be extreme, but what is always strikingly steady and enduring is the strength of the women.

In places like Afghanistan or Congo, the women are often viewed as weak victims—yet they are anything but. It is the women who get up every day and make breakfast out of whatever there is to make breakfast with. And if there is nothing, they are the ones collecting weeds and grass so their children still have something to fill their stomachs. It is the women who walk for hours each day to get firewood and water. It is the women who figure out how to reach beyond mere survival to do things a little better, no matter how bad the situation is. And then they pass it on, to their families and neighbors.

In public, women may be the silent ones behind the shrouds, but what outsiders don’t see is how much sharing they do among themselves. You want to spread information? Tell it to a woman, because she is going to sit down with all her neighbors and say, "Hey, I learned this; let me teach you."

These women have come to serve as inspirations and role models for me. They are on their own journeys, many difficult beyond imagination: physically, mentally, and emotionally. In the following pages, I’d like to introduce you to some of them.

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