“My passion is human rights for all”

Gry Tinde, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Gry Tinde

Photo courtesy of Marit Fosse
Gry Tinde is a tireless champion of human rights around the globe

MARIT FOSSE
Geneva

Gry Tinde has represented Norway in many places around the world, going from Geneva to Washington, from Oslo to Niamey, Niger. We managed to get hold of her in Geneva before she returned Niger, classified as one of poorest countries in the world. Gry is currently the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s country representative, and we were curious to learn a little bit more about this extraordinary and positive woman. So, the floor is yours, Gry.

MARIT FOSSE: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

GRY TINDE: My journalist father and accountant mother raised my younger brother and me near the Oslo Fjord. We skied to school in winter and swam on the coast during summers. I took on a newspaper route after school at age 12, as my dad said that everyone should work hard and start young. And besides, I needed the money. I enjoyed biking around, putting papers into mailboxes and checking out boys along the way. My education was in foreign languages, political science, journalism, and anthropology, in Norway, Germany, the United States, and Belgium. 

When I was 20, I spent six formative months in southwest France as an au-pair and understood that other countries have figured out a lot of things that I needed to learn about. The stay cured me of homesickness and put me on a global nomadic path that I have no intention of abandoning. I have lived in nine countries, visited about 60 and am now head of the country office in Niger of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. West Africa’s people and culture are my current crush.

MF: You have a motto, “My passion is human rights for all.” Where does your commitment come from?

GT: As a teenager, I was fascinated by foreign languages and literature and read a lot of novels with justice and gender equality themes. Reading Günther Wallraff’s Lowest of the Low during my studies of German literature convinced me to become a journalist and try to expose human rights violations similar to those he discovered by bravely pretending to be an immigrant worker in Germany. If I had not passed the national competitive exam for a job in the United Nations’ Department of Public Information, I would probably have worked as a journalist.

MF: You have had a rich and varied career. Could you tell us a little about its beginnings?

GT: In the United Nations, I was lucky to learn from feminist and justice activists such as Bella Abzug, Catherine O’Neill, and many others through my job in the NGO Section. Seeing Nelson Mandela enter the United Nations Secretariat Building in 1990 brought tears to my eyes. In 1992, I joined the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) as an electoral worker and learned much about Cambodian history and culture. I tend to grow attached to each country I live in. 

The realities of proxy Cold War battles and how the civilians, especially women, children, and other discriminated groups, suffer during conflict became very clear. I met a 15-year-old girl in a countryside clinic the day after she had stepped on a landmine and lost a leg. The look of despair in her eyes reflected the extremely challenging life ahead of her. Throughout my year in Cambodia, I was appalled by many of my male colleagues’ sexual exploitation and abuse of local women and children and the head of mission’s public approval of their behavior. I have tried to raise awareness about such crimes ever since.

MF: You have worked in the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, an agency whose work not only never ends but only increases. Could you talk to us about your time there?

GT: My master’s thesis in anthropology was a series of interviews in person with Cambodian women who had returned home to their town by the Mekong River after about 15 years in refugee camps in Thailand. Civil war and occupation had made their home country dangerous and inhospitable. They brought home with them both hope and skills. The town, Kratie, was where I was stationed with the UNTAC. Together we set up a livelihoods organization so that they could share knowledge and resources among themselves and with villagers who had survived the Khmer Rouge brutality and Vietnamese occupation. Nothing could have made me happier than joining the UNHCR and promoting refugee rights, and especially focusing on women’s and children’s issues.

I was spokesperson for the UNHCR in Belgrade, Serbia, and later headed the voluntary repatriation unit. This brought me to every corner of the former Yugoslavia, where people were trying to eke out a living in the ruins of war and ongoing power abuse and risks. Later, as Special Advisor on Gender Issues to António Guterres, who was High Commissioner for Refugees then, my job was to advance protection from sexual exploitation and abuse of persons affected by emergencies. I also worked with human resources to find ways to attract, advance, and retain more women, especially from the countries where the UNHCR had operations. 

This was and remains an uphill battle. There is little accountability to implement and fund adopted gender equality policies. Because of this, women and children experiencing disaster, conflict and displacement suffer from preventable abuse and discrimination. Nearly every week, I speak with women from various organizations who see no other solution than leaving their job owing to sexual harassment or bullying, after their employer sidelines them and refuses to protect them. 

MF: Gender and gender balance are obviously something dear to your heart. Can you elaborate on your fight for equal rights?

GT: The lack of women in peace negotiations causes major problems for humanity. All sides, including foreign countries supporting peace processes, could have done much more over several decades to ensure gender balance in conflict resolution. But men, who have a majority of senior roles, have usually decided to exclude women. How they get away with it I don’t know. Nearly every group photo of peace negotiations in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and other countries that I see in the media gives me the shivers as I know excluding women makes the talks less relevant to society at large and agreements will be more fragile and probably even a waste of time and money.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security from 2000 demands gender balance but is being mocked regularly and without consequences for those who violate this resolution that was intended to be binding. Foreign delegations must ensure equal participation of women and should demand that warring or opposing factions ensure a gender balance in their teams, too. There is usually much foreign funding involved in the rebuilding of society after conflict, and donors should demand a gender balance (mainly by including women from the country experiencing conflict) in every session and decision-making body, as well as in implementation, as a requirement for funding. It is taxpayers who fund most of these peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts, and taxpayers are evidently made up of women and men.

Between 2015 and 2019, only 14% of peace negotiators globally were women. Research shows that peace processes that include women have a 20% higher chance of lasting two years, and those processes that include civil society, including women’s organizations, have a 64% lower risk of failing. Working in the humanitarian sector, which struggles to raise enough money to provide life-saving assistance to people in need, I urge everyone who is involved in peace processes to insist on involving 50% women – and mainly women from the country where peace is being sought. Lives will be saved, and countries will become more stable and productive and, it is hoped, no longer need humanitarian aid in situations due to conflict.

MF: Today you are based in Niger managing the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ activities in that country. What exactly do you do, and how is it to live in one of the world’s poorest countries?

GT: The population of 23 million people in Niger deserves to live in peace and harmony and with full access to education, health care, housing, and work and leisure. Sadly, 10 million people, 42% of the population, live in extreme poverty. Malnutrition and starvation run high, children between 1 and 2 years old have the lowest vaccination rate in Africa with 13%. Nearly 60 % of the population is younger than 18. Global warming effects, annual floods, droughts, epidemics such as cholera outbreaks in nearly all parts of the country, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and spillover of conflict and terrorists from neighboring countries cause much suffering and often loss of life.

Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, with 76% of girls married before their 18th birthday and 28% before the age of 15. Marriage before the age of 18 results in child rape and is extremely detrimental to girls’ health, education, and well-being. They are mostly too young to give birth to children and often experience complications during labor and childbirth. This translates into a high risk of health problems and even death for both the girl and the baby.

This backdrop and many other challenges that people face motivate me to work closely with local expertise, especially women, to find solutions that work. As head of office, I coordinate humanitarian operations with a wonderful team of about 15 people – of whom most are from Niger. We cooperate with the Niger Red Cross, seven European Red Cross organizations that are based in Niger, the International Committee of the Red Cross, government agencies in Niger and abroad, United Nations agencies, development banks, and local civil society. 

Our delegation just became a cluster office and we are starting to coordinate IFRC’s activities also in Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, and Mali. The team is adding a number of local and international experts in health, disaster prevention and response, security, protection, gender, and inclusion, and more. For me, it is a privilege to be working and living there, and I am grateful for being looked after well by security guards and the national staff.

MF: Finally, when you look back, what is the posting that has given you the most personal satisfaction?

GT: This job in Niger is the most interesting and compelling I have had to date. The team welcomed me warmly from Day One, and all members are experts in their respective areas. Being the boss and not just a puny adviser, I find it exhilarating that I can quickly include gender equality actions such as prevention and response to gender-based violence in every report, strategy, project budget, job description, training, and presentation. Focusing on and mainstreaming this into all aspects of our work is something that all heads of delegations are expected to do as per our adopted strategies, so it is not revolutionary. Yet it is challenging for many managers to “walk the talk” on gender issues among the plethora of daily, pressing humanitarian demands.

Gender equality expertise is needed to take effective leadership in this complex field where there is a tendency globally to hold female victims fully or partially responsible for what an abuser has done to them. It also helps to have grown up as a girl. Most managers in the humanitarian sector are men. Very few African women lead humanitarian operations or units on the continent, even though there are plenty of skilled and suitable talents. The men in charge traditionally have shunned gender parity initiatives at senior levels and have networked so that men from the Global North continue to hold most of the power and purse strings in international cooperation. Additionally, as these same male leaders have decided (and with the support of donors!), there simply are too few gender and gender-based violence-prevention experts in humanitarian and development organizations. 

Ensuring safe operations for both staff and people affected by emergencies requires implementation of high-quality and effective action. For instance, organizations need to start with themselves and educate staff and managers on how to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. Briefing staff on national legislation that prohibits harassment and power abuse in the workplace is a first step. 

Over 150 countries have criminalized sexual harassment in the workplace, and especially potential abusers, Human Resources, legal units, and young, female staff must know this and apply the prohibitions daily and unwaveringly. No one can hide behind diplomatic immunity when it comes to sexual misconduct. Only by practicing gender-sensitive behavior vis-à-vis colleagues can managers and employees be expected to know how to do this when working with people in need of humanitarian or development assistance.

Together with colleagues in Niger, I recently organized two workshops on sexual harassment issues, where other Red Cross national societies and the ICRC also joined. The participants produced over 30 concrete recommendations. Cooperating closely with the Niger Red Cross and with funding from Finnish Red Cross, we have included prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) consultants from Niger in health, nutrition, and Covid-19 projects in four regions in Niger. 

These female consultants who speak local languages will in the next months conduct discreet conversations with women and adolescent girls about the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse during the delivery of humanitarian aid and ask the women and girls what aid organizations should do to end such abuses. The activity is based on a concept developed and applied in Lebanon and Uganda since 2017 by “Empowered Aid,” which is an initiative under the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. It is very inspiring to be able to influence humanitarian operations with a gender lens.

Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.

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