A Woman in Dunkirk

8th March 2016: International Women’s Day.  This fixed date has been observed every year since the United Nations established it in 1975, and called on Member States to recognise women’s rights. But the Day’s beginnings lie much earlier in the 20th century, in the efforts of various workers’ organisations across North America and Europe to promote women’s rights (more here).

In some countries the day is marked with gestures of love and appreciation towards women. Italian women enjoy gifts of yellow mimosas, and in Bulgaria and Romania, children give their mothers presents. On the global scene, the UN chooses a theme each year, and women’s achievements in social, political, cultural and economic spheres are recognised and celebrated.

2016: Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality

The 2016 theme reflects the fact that whilst huge progress has been made, gender disparity remains on many fronts. Click here for a timeline that gives a very effective picture of the situation.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, International Women's Day, 8th March, Pledge for Parity, Gender Equality, Mexico
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Amongst the remarkable women listed is a nun called Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695). Revered in her home country of Mexico, she was largely self-taught. A gifted and curious child, she became a highly influential writer and scholar. She was also in no doubt that a woman was as entitled to an education as a man. One of her most famous quotes is this brilliantly witty line:

“One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.” 


Sor Juana is a new name to me, but one I now won’t  forget.



There are countless lesser known women who are inspirational and exceptional, each in their own way. I saw one on television last night.

Twin doctors Chris and Xand van Tullekin explored the current migrant crisis in Frontline doctors: Winter Migrant Crisis. They did not seek to judge or solve the complexities of the ever-evolving political situation, but instead to act as observers at critical hotspots within Europe.


After seeing for himself the horrors of the s0-called Calais Jungle, Xand van Tullekin moved on to another migrant camp in Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk. There he met one ordinary woman going to extraordinary lengths to give her 6 children a better life and hope for the future.

This Kurdish woman, fleeing ISIS, had made the long and treacherous journey from Iraq to this freezing mud bath of a camp. Unable to cross the Channel to the UK, she had constructed a temporary home out of a couple of tents strapped together with other materials she’d found.

In the desperate conditions of the camp, the woman had tried to inject a human touch and softly explained to Xand that her “decorations” were intended to make the ramshackle tent more homely. When Xand started to uncover the sodden and stinking bedding and expressed well-meaning shock, the mother’s delicate composure shattered.

Of even greater concern was the health of the woman’s one-year old child. Xand persuaded the mother to take her daughter to the clinic, where his diagnosis of measles was confirmed. The child was dangerously ill, and hospital treatment for the child was urged. The woman was quietly resolute: she would not – could not – leave the rest of her children exposed to the dangers of the camp. She had no choice but to take the medicines prescribed and attempt to nurse the child back to health in her damp, squalid tent. What was remarkable was the calm determination that she showed. Exhausted and powerless, she still had dignity, even though her appalling circumstances were making every effort to strip it from her.


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has just begun work on a new refugee camp in Grand-Synthe – the first in France that will meet international humanitarian standards. Perhaps this will provide our brave Kurdish woman and her family with a safer, cleaner, drier place to live before much longer. No doubt she will be very relieved, and decorate her new accommodation so that it feels like home. But I’m she won’t stop fighting for her family and will keep trying to find that better life that she left Iraq for. And she won’t be the only other nameless woman showing incredible courage and determination in doing so.

Frontline Doctors: Winter Migrant Crisis tells the stories of remarkable men and children too, who are in equally dire circumstances. It’s not easy viewing, but probably necessary.



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