A LOT of us have made changes over the past few years, but perhaps nothing would bring a shock to the system more than moving from Africa to Cork.
That’s exactly what Grainne Kilcullen, ActionAid Ireland’s new Head of Programmes, has done.
Grainne’s work with non-profit organisations has brought her all over the world - from Tanzania and Myanmar to Nepal - but the 38-year-old is now back home in her native Cobh, where she’ll be running ActionAid Ireland’s international development programmes.
“I was gone for 15 years. They talk about reverse culture shock, where things are so different and the way of life is so different, but you just adapt I suppose,” says Grainne.
“One of the things that shocked me about moving home was how much I now hope we don’t lose our community spirit.
"In Tanzania it’s still so strong. They have a phrase called ‘ubuntu’ which means ‘I am because we are’. Ireland had that, and I hope we don’t lose it completely. We have a lot to learn from African culture.”
Grainne spent three years working with the United Nations in Tanzania, following a year and a half stint with Peace Brigades International, an NGO that provides unarmed protection to human rights defenders.
She also spent over a year working with a local peacebuilding organisation in Myanmar - a place that is very close to her heart.
“It’s a very difficult situation in Myanmar. I was there when the country started to open up, there was more democratic freedom and more businesses coming in, but since then there’s been the military coup and it’s really devastating,” she says.
“Colleagues of mine who used to be involved in peace building have really had to be very, very careful.”
ActionAid Ireland is part of the ActionAid global federation, which operates in 45 countries. The charity works with communities, women’s movements, groups and networks, to overcome the structural causes and consequences of poverty and injustice.
Part of Grainne’s new role will include overseeing ActionAid Ireland’s Women’s Rights Programme, which she is really looking forward to.
“It’s very exciting because the work is very issue focused in relation to what affects women and girls in developing countries, mostly in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nepal,” she says.
“It really spans across a lot of areas. We do a lot of work to support women to become more economically independent.
“Often times, one of the biggest causes of sustained violence against women occurs when they are unable to leave their partners. They might not have ownership over their land or maybe they haven’t been educated to the same degree as their husbands, so they don’t have as many opportunities to find work.
“We try to focus on helping women become more independent so they can make their own decisions and have more options.”
ActionAid also works in the areas of economic justice, climate justice, and education.
“We work with schools and teachers around a variety of things, for example period poverty. Girls who don’t have access to sanitary pads are unable to go to school when they’re menstruating and when that happens their performance in school drops,” Grainne says.
“Recently, I was in Ethiopia and we visited some schools where we’ve supported safe houses and girls clubs where girls can wash and have access to sanitary pads. As a result, they’re able to go to school and they’re performing much better.
“It’s about trying to change attitudes and norms around women’s education so that they can be recognised and respected in society.”
All of that might sound like no small feat to an outsider, but Grainne has plenty of experience under her belt. The UCC graduate worked with Christian Aid Ireland for six years before taking on her new role, and also has a masters degree in International Human Rights Law from University College Galway.
The inspiration for all of it, she says, can be traced back to her school days in Cobh.
“Growing up in Cork, I got involved a lot in working with the homeless - mainly during transition year. I did a lot of volunteer work around that time and throughout that year I realised what my neighbours were going through,” she says.
“Then, when I went to UCC I got involved with the One World Society, which has a lot to do with pushing Fair Trade products and recognising the workers who provide the products we take for granted. I think that all contributed to me wanting to work in human rights.”
A little push from mammy also helped.
“It was definitely my mother that encouraged me to do the masters,” Grainne says with a laugh. “But it really was getting involved in justice issues locally in Cork and then recognising that link internationally. You realise that injustice is happening all over.
There’s such an emphasis on capital and technological progress in the world but the respect for human beings is often lost along the way.”
As for her thoughts on the often controversial free time that transition year brings, having had such a productive one, Grainne says: “It’s such an eye opener. It gives you that bit of time and space to recoginse that there are issues beyond exams and that there are lots of ways you can contribute to the world.
“There isn’t just a linear way of progressing through life, there’s so much young people can do.”
For any young person that might like to enter into a career in human rights, Grainne has a lot of solid advice: find a mentor, look into what working for the UN actually entails, and be prepared to learn a lot about yourself as you go.
“Everything is so complex and there’s always so much to learn and dismantle - both about yourself and your own perception,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, the job can also be tough.
“This work often attracts people who are quite committed and there’s a volunteer type of spirit. So, it can be hard sometimes to put up barriers and not give so much.
“But you’re always so inspired by female activists and community leaders and women who are empowering themselves and going forward despite their circumstances. It’s a real inspiration to keep going.”
Not everyone needs to go all in to make a difference, however.
“Getting involved in grassroots campaigns at home can really help you to feel like there’s something bigger than yourself. That’s where you can find your contribution,” Grainne says.
“We’ve come through so much struggle and change in Ireland. We had to campaign so much for women’s rights. And more voices are needed for those who are still going through that.”