Sensitivity is not a weakness and the characteristics women bring to charity work have been under-appreciated, the winner of a Sydney emerging leaders prize has said.

As chief operating officer at AusRelief, Cheryne El Hawat spearheads projects globally, ensuring her team and partners effectively implement the charity’s objectives of empowering underprivileged communities.

El Hawat, 30, who was recently awarded the Committee of Sydney’s Emerging Leader prize at the annual Sydney Awards, said while the charity is not gender exclusive, she leads a team dominated by women, all of whom advocate for change.

“For so long, the charity space was so dominated by men that not only were issues missed, but the insights of half of the community that you’re serving,” she told Central News.

“When women are absent in these spaces, issues affecting women in vulnerable communities are missed or misunderstood.

“The more that women are part of the problem-solving side, the more insight you have into the nuances of women-related issues.”

Systemic attitudes towards women, she added, had been used in the past to diminish their responsibilities in the charity sector.

“For so long, sensitivity has been used against women as a weakness,” she said. “But to me, it is our strength, especially in the charity space. Your immediate reaction might be to cry, but then you’re fierce in how you attack that problem.

Cheryne with Turkish Red Crescent

AusRelief with partner Turkish Red Crescent following the Earthquakes. Source: AusRelief


“Charity needs heart, and women have a lot of that.”

She then quoted one of her influences, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, saying “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made”.

Sitting in AusRelief’s head office in Yagoona in Sydney’s west, El Hawat spoke about how she began working in humanitarian aid and the growing importance of sustainability in charity.

“I got involved in charity by applying to volunteer,” she said. “Initially, it was just to join the legal committee, but it just grew from there.

While AusRelief provides short-term aid through campaigns such as ‘Feed the Needy’ and the ‘Turkey and Syria Earthquake Appeal’, the team also develops long-term sustainable solutions such as their ‘low-cost housing’ initiatives in Cambodia, Lebanon, Bangladesh, and Turkey.

“There’s nothing wrong with immediate solutions like food and water because parts of the world urgently need that. But sustainable solutions are also needed to empower communities, so that eventually they’re able to support themselves,” El Hawat said.

“To do so, everyone must be involved.”


There were other instances where El Hawat saw the importance of sustainable solutions, especially when working as a criminal defence lawyer, before joining AusRelief.

That experience exposed her to cases where punitive measures were not suitable in responding to cases that required rehabilitative individual and community responses.

“I realised very early in my legal career, that my involvement in community issues will always be reactive, but I wanted to be in spaces where it would be preventative,” she said.

To El Hawat, it is her sensitivity that ensures her advocacy for change, she said, adding: “How could you work in the humanitarian space if you weren’t [sensitive]?”

Main image supplied.