Marie Sophie Petterson
Marie Sophie Petterson, JPO with UN Women funded by Denmark. Marie Sophie shares her experience with the earth quake in Nepal and the role of a JPO in such times.
Gender and Development
Would you tell us a little bit about your professional and educational background?
I am a Danish-supported Junior Professional Officer and Coordination Analyst at the UN Women Nepal Country Office. I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, but lived the majority of my life outside Denmark. I lived for 8 years in Brussels, Belgium, where I completed the European Baccalaureat. I completed my BSc in Politics, Economic and Philosophy at the University of Warwick in the UK, with an intercalated year at l’Institute de Sciences Politiques in Bordeaux, France. I graduated in 2011 with my MSc in Gender, Development and Globalisation from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). During my studies, I completed internships for Womankind Worldwide and VSO in London, and for the OECD Development Assistance Committee in Paris.
What professional experience did you have before joining the JPO Programme?
Before joining UN Women, I worked as a Gender Adviser and Programme Analyst with the Economic Empowerment of the Poorest (EEP)/Shiree programme in Bangladesh. The Programme funded by DfID/UK Aid, SDC and the Government of Bangladesh, supporting over 1 million extreme poor people of over 300,000 household across the 5 districts of Bangladesh through 37 partner NGOs. As a Programme Analyst I was responsible for overall Monitoring and Evaluation of all EEP/Shiree operations. Given my strong interest in Gender, I started gender mainstreaming the EEP/Shiree M&E analysis and operational implementation of my initiative, and in January 2014 I was promoted to Gender Adviser and Programme Analyst. As a Gender Adviser I had an additional leading role in preparing, planning and implementing the EEP/Shiree gender mainstreaming action plan across the entire organisation both within M&E methodologies, NGO operations/interventions, the nutrition component, research analysis and advocacy communications.
In September 2013 I funded The Tripty project based in Bangladesh. The project aims to create an innovative solution to combine modern design and traditional Bangladeshi handicraft to market it abroad helping poor rural female artisans in Bangladesh reclaim their livelihood while making sustainable, fashionable, and ethical products.
why did you apply to be a JPO?
I decided to apply because since my first internship in the Development sector in 2008 I had been recommended by various development practitioners both at the OECD, DFID, IPA and more that the JPO programme is recognised as best entry into the development sector and the UN system. After completing a JPO position doors will open for you, both within and beyond the UN system.
Gender equality was always my key interest and passion. Indeed, the focus of my professional and academic work within international development up until now has focused on issues of gender equality and women’s empowerment. While I was at the LSE learning from top gender and development academics, one of which was Silvia Chant who conducts substantial research for UN Women, and meeting fellow students who had previously worked for UN Women in different countries, I felt even more encouraged to build my career to be able to apply for a JPO position with UN Women. After having worked in Bangladesh for three years, I decided I wanted to remain in South Asia longer to further deepen my knowledge of gender equality issues in the region and thus Nepal was an ideal next step for me.
You were in Nepal when the devastating earthquake happened this year. Tell us a little bit about your experience. How did it affect you and your assignment? How has it contributed to your understanding and perspective of rehabilitation and post-disaster reconstruction and the role that the UN can play in such efforts?
The devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on Saturday 25th April, causing large-scale loss of life, injuries and damage of buildings and infrastructure, shook us all and left the nation in shock. I returned back from brunch with friends and was on the third floor of my building as the ground underneath started to rumble and the walls around turned into rubber swaying up and down and from side to side. I dropped down to the floor against the most stable closest wall. The sound was the most terrifying - the rumble of the building shaking, the birds screaming, the dogs barking and people around me crying and running around in panic. It went on for over a minute and I thought the building would collapse on top of me. Then it stopped and I rushed outside before the shaking started again. I saw the rubble of collapsed building walls around my neighbourhood and all my neighbours gathered on the street hugging and holding on to each other, while the earth was still shaking and everything was swaying. A Nepali woman grabbed me and would not stop crying in my arms. I tried contacting my family and boyfriend and in my confusion I started walking to find my friends. I bumped into my friend Nikhila from WFP and together we walked to an open area where we found other friends gathered. The following nights we all camped in the UN House with little food and water and no sleep, while the aftershocks continued constantly. I went back to my house to get my go-back with basic supplies, but as my building had big cracks I could not stay there. Eventually I went to stay at my friend Nikhila’s place which was undamaged until my own building was fixed and had been assessed as safe. The second large earthquake of 7.3 magnitude on 12 May 2015, as well as the series of smaller aftershocks and tremors which still continue today keep the trauma of myself, colleagues, friends and the people of Nepal unrecovered. While daily life in Kathmandu has returned to normal, I am still shaken and react strongly to sounds and movements. For the many people living in the most affected districts who have lost families, homes or those who fled their districts and who have become displaced living in temporary camps, it will still take a long time for their lives to return to normal, if ever. Yet the resilience is impressive. Colleagues of mine who experienced losses continued to come to the office every day. My colleagues and I have been seeing a UN stress counsellor regularly which has been helpful. Today I am grateful to be OK and to be contributing to the humanitarian emergency response.
I was impressed by how fast the UN managed to set up the humanitarian cluster system and convene humanitarian agencies and actors the day after the earthquake.
As a Coordination Analyst with UN Women Nepal, since the earthquake I have been responsible for coordinating the Inter Cluster Gender Working Group (GWG) which was established on 30 April 2015, five days after the earthquake, with the endorsement of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal. The Gender Working Group is providing an inter-cluster coordination mechanism to raise and prioritise gender equality issues and support the realisation of gender responsive programming in the work of clusters/sectors throughout the humanitarian action phase.
Although my role in the humanitarian response has been challenging, it has also been an immense and inspiring learning experience. I have especially enjoyed the fast pace direct impact part of the work and although I find my interest lies mostly with the more socially transformative and longer-term sustainable interventions that can be done in a development context, I will definitely consider humanitarian work in my future career, especially from the perspective of the integration of gender equality in the humanitarian-development continuum.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work and what is the most challenging?
So far the most rewarding, and at the same time also the most challenging work of my JPO period, has been the coordination work related to the integration of gender equality in the humanitarian response. It has been an immense learning experience and has involved pioneering efforts which has set standard for UN Women’s involved in humanitarian action globally. Receiving direct inputs on needs and challenges from our CSO and NGO partners in the field has been especially inspiring. For these efforts and the many achievements we made in a short period of time, we were complimented directly by the Assistant Secretary Generals from both UN OCHA and UN Women.
My vision ...
What are some lessons learned or words of wisdom you can share with other JPOs who are just starting out on their assignment?
My biggest piece of advice is to welcome challenges with open arms and to push yourself to speak out and take initiatives. Even if you are new to the UN system and less senior than many of your colleagues, you have skills and knowledge to bring and you will only learn by being actively engaged and responsible for key deliverables contributing to the effectiveness and reputation of your office. Say yes to opportunities and new tasks and feel confident that you can succeed. Yet, be ready to prioritise and manage your time efficiently as work accumulates and many colleagues are asking for your support at the same time. Seek as much guidance and supervision from your supervisor as you can and try to regularly request her/his feedback on your performance. Don’t be afraid to request involvement in other work tasks than stated in your ToR if you believe if would be good for your own learning and career development. Finally make sure you go to the field, that’s where you will find the real perspective on your daily work.
Where would you like to find yourself in 10 years’ time?
I would like to pursue another more senior position within UN Women in a more programmatic specialist role, perhaps at the regional office level. Otherwise, my longer-term career plan would also be to become a Senior Gender/Social Development Adviser within a UN Agency or Development Agency. Since my involvement in the emergency work in Nepal, I have a new interest to become a Gender Capacity Adviser with UN OCHA. If times allows, I have plans to persue a work related PhD.