“I felt a real difference the first time I went back to the field as a mother,” says Valerie Guarnieri, whose dedication to feeding the hungry has stretched from Sudan, to the Philippines, to her current job as Director of Programme at WFP’s headquarters in Rome.
In her present role, Valerie leads and designs life-saving and innovative programmes to feed hungry people in the 75 countries where WFP works, while balancing a family of three children and a heavy travel schedule that brings her to some of the world’s worst hunger hotspots. In a recent interview, she explained that as a woman and a mother, she can traverse a bridge to better hear and understand the food needs of hungry people, the majority of whom are women and children.
Valerie at home with her husband David and their three children. Valerie was born in Germany and raised primarily in Asia.
What exactly does being a woman bring to your job?
I think there’s a big difference being a woman, and what you bring to the table as a woman. There’s a level of interaction that you have with women -- women beneficiaries -- when you’re in the field, that I think is quite difficult for men to have because there’s always going to be that boundary. A lot of the times when you go to a village, initially it’s the men who come out and they sort of monopolise the situation, and the woman are a little bit quiet, standing behind, maybe giggling behind their hands... they’re often reluctant to speak out.
How do you get to talk to the women by themselves?
One of my favorite experiences with WFP was actually quite recently on a trip when I was in Syria. On this trip I was fortunate because I was travelling with two men, so we decided to try to divide and conquer. We organized a really important meeting that they would have with the men while I went on to have the real meeting with the women on the side. In the discussion I had with this group of 20 women, they were so animated and emotional. They were crying and kissing me. They were so happy to talk to about the challenges they were facing as women and as mothers. And that was really quite remarkable.
Does being a mother make a difference?
I felt a real difference the first time I went back to the field as a mother. It was in Sudan, at the time there were large camps for displaced people outside of Khartoum. It was the first time I was leaving my children at home. I just felt a connection with the women -- most of whom were mothers and grandmothers -- that was deeper than what I had had before. Part of it was that I was seeing them almost for the first time as fellow women, as fellow mothers, not as distant people who were suffering because of a conflict. When you see a beneficiary like that, and you have a conversation from that, from the perspective as two women, as two mothers, there’s a richness in that which is really irreplaceable.
Find out more about WFP's Focus on Women
Valerie joined WFP in August 2000. She has worked as Country Director in the Philippines, Deputy Country Director in Zimbabwe and Senior Policy Advisor at headquarters in Rome. Previously, she was with USAID, responsible for managing over $150 million in U.S. emergency assistance to Africa. She was also Director for Humanitarian Assistance at the National Security Council.