Birgitta Marais EDD Deputy Project Manager
Birgitta couples love and kindness with unwavering persistence to overcome barriers, including gender inequality, to create a safer Somalia.
According to the UN, the Gender Inequality Index for Somalia is 0.776; 1 denotes complete inequality. This places Somalia in the fourth highest position globally in terms of the inequality of females. Some professional women researching their next role might consider this fact a barrier likely to restrict the effectiveness of their work, but not Birgitta Marais.
With a career spanning 28 years and multiple threat environments worldwide, South African working dog expert Birgitta says she saw a unique opportunity to make a significant and positive difference when she was offered the role of Explosives Detection Dog (EDD) Deputy Project Manager in Somalia by SafeLane Global (SafeLane).
To bring Birgitta’s unique learning and valuable insight to help all SafeLane staff grow professionally, we caught up with her between rotations to ask more about her work in Somalia, and how she is fulfilling her personal ambitions of making a lasting and tangible difference in-country.
Please can you describe your current role in Somalia
I’m Deputy Project Manager for SafeLane’s EDD capacity, based in Mogadishu. I also act as Kennel Master and Mentor and support the entire leadership team to ensure we are the most effective resource we can be.
I help with everything from managing budgets to producing reports and delivering statistics in my management capacity – and in terms of the most critical part of my work in my opinion, I’m an EDD mentor who delivers QA and training and support in the field. One of my strengths is spotting the tiniest deviation from perfection in an EDD and nipping it in the bud before it becomes a problem.
How did you get into the working dog sector?
When I was five years old my mother took me to watch the police doing a demonstration of their working dogs. I was absolutely transfixed, and in that moment my entire future was sealed. I said to my mother: “that, is what I want to do with my life.” Little did I realise the barriers I would face. In South Africa, the working dog sector is a heavily male dominated industry. The perception – even to this day – is that women will spoil the dogs and won’t be tough enough on them to make them work. To me, such a perception was like a red rag to a bull, and I committed tirelessly to achieving my ambition and proving that women are every bit as capable as men, even if they choose to work in a very different way.
So, I joined the police and went to work at the dog school where I enjoyed a rewarding career for 10 years. It was there I learned to push back against gender stereotypes by being patient, persistent and teaching by example. It is tiring and tiresome that still, in this day and age, professional women are scrutinised cynically sometimes. But the advice I’ve always given to fellow females is yes, you may have to work that much harder to prove yourself every bit as equal…but through so doing you’re helping to break down those barriers for your daughters and their daughters.
After achieving significant professional success and having introduced the concept that happy dogs work harder, I decided it was time to move on.
What was your next career challenge after the police?
I wanted to work in a humanitarian capacity where I could make a tangible difference. I wanted to help children receive an education and to give people affected by conflict their lives back. As a working dog professional, I moved into mine detection dogs and clearance work. However, as the global terrorism threat advanced, I changed tack and began working as an explosive detection dog trainer and mentor, and that’s what led me to apply to work for SafeLane Global.
When SafeLane offered you the opportunity to work in Somalia, were you at all concerned about the level of gender inequality locally, or the fact that culturally working dogs might pose a challenge to the local people you’d be helping to protect?
Before working in Somalia I’d worked in multiple countries including complex threat environments, conflict zones and places where neither women nor dogs are particularly respected, therefore from any of those perspectives Somalia didn’t concern me. Rather, I rightly recognised that here was a country where I could make a discernible positive difference in many different ways.
How are you making a positive difference in Somalia?
My strength is dogs. I understand a dog’s language. I know how to get the best out of any dog. I chose to work for SafeLane because the company’s canine ethos is entirely aligned with my own. SafeLane’s training methods are conditioning and positive reinforcement based; they deploy the happiest, healthiest dogs in the sector. I wanted to help ensure the deployed dogs did their best work. And to do that, I knew I was the right person to work with the new handlers.
I’m very patient and I encouraged the handlers to invest more time in their dogs I also lead by example, I don’t push. So, when my methods were achieving consistent and seemingly effortless results, and my dogs were hitting 100% operational accreditation whilst some handlers around me were failing, I won their attention!
A highlight for me was when a team came back in from one of the sectors and, in front of everyone, they said to me “we just wanted to thank you, we have been doing this job for 15 years and you’re the first person to teach us about dogs.” That meant the world.
I have now taken some of them from being handlers and developed them into trainers and mentors. Therefore, I am making a difference, it’s a nice feeling to be creating a positive legacy.
How have you and your working dogs been received by the Somali people?
The reaction I tend to get when I’m out and about, as a white woman in bush style clothing with dogs around me, can be quite negative initially. I see the men and women are wary of me. But the children, they come over, they are inquisitive, and I always answer their questions and give them all the time and explanations they deserve. Through so doing I win their love for my dogs and the work they are doing.
Can you give us an example please?
It’s whenever the dogs are working that Somali children find this very interesting and a crowd can gather very quickly. I remember one day out in the city while I was watching a dog called Jack search, a young girl of about 15 came to me to ask me if Jack was the devil.
She and her friends were very wary of him; I told her no, he just works very fast because he wants to ensure the area around them is safe from explosives, so she can play with her friends.
Her attitude changed immediately, and she asked me to thank the dog, and to tell him he was very kind for what he was doing. Again, patience and kindness won the day.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Even in the most forward thinking, developed and advanced societies in the world, women face inequality because of others’ ignorance. The most effective way to push this barrier down is with persistence, patience, love and kindness. It’s how I work, it’s who I am, and my achievements are testament to the validity of this approach.