Always in the shadows: Red Cross exhibition shines light on women in humanitarian sector

Dr Dolores Martin Moruno and Elisa Rusca, co-curators of the exhibition Who Cares. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/Megha Kaveri)

The exhibition, entitled Who cares? and launched in May 2022, attempts to shine a light on how women have been at the forefront of humanitarian care work in different ways.

About half a dozen posters line the entrance of Salle Jean Pictet at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, all depicting women as nurturing and compassionate humanitarians. These posters are from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent’s (IFRC) collection dating back to 1862. They tell stories of how women were historically relegated to the backlines of humanitarian action all while men were shown as the torchbearers of business and international cooperation. 

The exhibition, entitled Who cares? and launched in May 2022, attempts to shine a light on how women have been at the forefront of humanitarian care work in different ways. In a little over 200 photos, objects and artefacts, visitors get to see several stories of women leading from the front in areas of crises. 

“We wanted to keep it [the name of the exhibition] as a question and also as a wordplay because the exhibition is about those who take care of people. There is also a question of who cares about these people (caregivers - ed.) and who tells their stories,” Elisa Rusca, a curator at the museum told Geneva Solutions. 

Women at the helm of humanitarian action

All the exhibits at the show are linked by a single thread: women being humanitarian leaders across different circumstances, time periods and motivations. 

“It is really interesting to see no matter where you are in the world, you see the same image [of women as nurturers] coming up again and again,” Dr Dolores Martín Moruno, co-curator and a researcher at the University of Geneva said.

A collection of some of the earliest photos and posters of Red Cross. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/MK)

One of the first stories that’s narrated is that of Salaria Kea O’Reilly, the only African-American woman nurse, who went to Spain from the United States to serve in the Spanish civil war because black nurses were prohibited from being part of humanitarian action in the US Red Cross back then. 

The narration then moves to photos of Elizabeth Eidenbenz, who is famous for saving several lives from being killed by the Nazis during the second world war. A midwife in southern France, Eidenbenz worked in a maternity hospital that took care of pregnant prisoners from occupied France. She risked her life trying to save these women and their infants from being deported to Germany or Poland.

Pieces from the maternity hospital Eidenbenz worked in Occupied France. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/MK)

The extensive photo collection also includes past and present-day pictures of care workers who served in the Franco-Algerian war and images of women nurses during the Franco-Prussian war.

Powerful ensembles

A standout exhibit is the collection of x-ray images by Nobel laureate Marie Curie in 1917, taken in mobile ambulances, which helped hundreds of soldiers from losing their body parts to amputations. “The idea behind getting this exhibit is to tell the world, which saw women just as maternal figures, that women had scientific competence,” Martín Moruno added. 

Care work comes in different forms. Eedah, a Syrian war refugee in Jordan, is featured in the exhibition for having taken the lead to offer hair and make-up services to refugees in Jordanian camps. The curators remarked that this was an example of how women have been innovative at the face of war, offering a glimpse of “normal life” to the refugees. The story of one of the earliest instances of fairtrade is narrated through a bright, red tea cosy made in Hong Kong. The tea cosies were shipped to the United Kingdom and sold there. The sale proceeds were then brought back to Hong Kong and distributed among the communities that made the products.

A tea cosy that was part of an early fairtrade transaction. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/MK)

Opposite to the entrance of the exhibition, a collection of posters from the Red Cross in Soviet Russia and China line the walls. The stark difference in the portrayal of women as firefighters and vehicle drivers in these posters raises the question of whether women in the humanitarian sector were better placed in the east than in the west. “Representations are not the reality. I think western women were also more active in the representations than they appear,” Martín Moruno remarked, adding that representation is always better than reality. 

A Red Cross poster from Soviet Russia (Credit: Geneva Solutions/MK)

ICRC’s own legacy

Unmissable among the exhibits is a collection of pictures featuring Jeanne Egger, a Red Cross worker who spent time with prisoners, fighting for their rights to have a dignified life. A sexual minority, Egger had to fight the system to become the first woman delegate of the Red Cross with diplomatic status in 1963. 

When asked about where women stand in today’s Red Cross, Rusca points to the organisation's website that says there are as many women in the Red Cross as men. It, however, acknowledges that parity is yet to be achieved in high level positions, including the president’s office, the assembly and the directorate.

The exhibition is open till 9 October 2022 and more details can be found on the website.