Where are the women in the history of humanitarian aid? How can a gender perspective help us to better understand the involvement of women in the humanitarian movement? Has humanitarianism allowed women to fight for their political rights?
How can the history of humanitarianism contribute to reconstructing the history of Swiss women from a transnational point of view? To what extent have gender stereotypes hidden the role of female humanitarians in the history of global health?
How can we study the lived experiences of the women and men who have been active in the field to write a history of humanitarianism from below? And what lessons can we learn from this history for present-day humanitarianism?
In order to answer these questions, our research mobilises analytical and interpretive tools which lie at the crossroads of several research areas: the history of humanitarianism, international relations, global health, women and gender, emotions, experience and even visual and material culture and public history. Our research aims to stimulate a critical dialogue about the challenges of contemporary humanitarian action between historians, philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, healthcare professionals, representatives of NGOs and cultural institutions as well as the general public.
The international conference “Gendering Humanitarian Knowledge: Global Histories of Compassion from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present”, which took place in April 2018, was an initial step for identifying key moments in the history of humanitarian relief in which women were the main agents. The research presented in this conference mobilised different perspectives from Women’s history, Gender history and Postcolonial studies which all proved to be very useful for contextualising and evaluating the action of female humanitarians, as well as their situated knowledge(s). Women humanitarians have led emergency relief operations since the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, showing both complicity with and resistance to the main Western Imperial powers. A selection of contributions to this conference were published in a special issue of the journal Medicine, Conflict and Survival in 2020.
This research examines the activities of nurses and war godmothers on the Yser front between 1914 and 1918, a space which became a place of humanitarian intervention when almost all of Belgium was occupied during the First World War. Both near and far from the trenches, these women actively participated in this conflict by relieving the suffering of soldiers. While nurses faced the horrors of battle directly in the field, volunteer correspondents or ‘war godmothers’ were present in many physical locations on the front through the letters and packages that they sent to soldiers. These women wrote to soldiers, who they did not know, to provide them with moral, emotional and material support, in order to make up for the lack of news they received from their families. This project aims to examine the organisational networks, care practices and experiences of these female caregivers. It also aims to analyse the reception and experience of this care from the point of view of soldiers as well as the involvement of the soldiers themselves within it. To achieve this objective, multiple sources have been consulted from humanitarian organisations, newspapers and magazines, as well as letters, diaries and photographs that belonged to these female caregivers and the soldiers who benefited from their care. This research will produce a PhD dissertation which will be defended in public in September 2023.
This research examines the women humanitarians who are present in the films made by the Swiss filmmaker and anthropologist Jacqueline Veuve (1930-2013). A militant feminist, who was trained in anthropological cinema by Jean Rouche, Veuve made several documentaries about the experiences of female Swiss humanitarians during WWII. These documentaries contain the precious testimonials of these women, whose history is little known, as well as those of people who were interned in the camps where they worked. We will examine in detail the documentary Journal de Rivesaltes 1941-1942, which is based on the book of the same name, which itself is based on the diary that Friedel Bohny-Reiter kept during the year she worked as a nurse for the Swiss Aid to Children organisation at the Rivesaltes internment camp. This research in Jacqueline Veuve’s archives aims to bring to light the contribution that this filmmaker made to the history of women humanitarians, as her films are true historical sources which reveal the complexity of the experiences and memories of these women during the Second World War. This research has been published in the book Making Humanitarian Crises: Emotions and Images in History (Palgrave, 2022).
The international conference “Historie(s) of Care: Gender, Experiences and Humanitarian Knowledge(s)” which took place at the Fondation Brocher in September 2022 allowed us to identify a horizon for the gendered history of humanitarian action: the development of a history of care. The concept of care was initially developed in feminist reflections, however it can make visible the emergency practices that have often been considered as marginal in the history of medicine, even though they have been crucial for the development of global health. By adopting care as a theoretical angle, the objective of this research is to understand the moral dimension of women humanitarian’s work in close relation to changing notions of pain as well as associated affective responses such as sympathy and compassion. A selection of contributions to this conference will be published in the review Dynamis in 2023-2024.
The SNSF Agora scientific communication project Beyond Compassion: Gender and Humanitarian Action has allowed us to share the results of our research with the general public thanks to the organisation of three cultural initiatives. First of all, we worked with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum over a period of two years to co-produce the exposition Who Cares? Gender and Humanitarian Action. This exhibition brought together a wide selection of objects, stories, textiles, medical instruments and photographs between the 31st of May and the 9th of October 2022. We also organised a mini film festival in partnership with the Cinémas du Grütli which was accompanied by a series of round-table events during April 2022. Finally, we developed a website with the digital agency Détails so that we could keep a permanent record of our exchanges with the public: https://beyondcompassion.ch.