Sally Sara: Woman of The World

Sally Sara in the field as a foreign correpondent. Image courtesy Sally Sara

Sally Sara is familiar to ABC news audiences for her concise and insightful reporting as a foreign correspondent from some of the most dangerous places on Earth. From her 2005 posting to Africa, to her last posting to Afghanistan, Sara been responsible for keeping Australians informed about the major events unfolding in often crisis-laden locations. Sally Sara will be visiting Perth to speak on the behest of the UN Women Australia Perth Chapter’s International Women’s Day Lunch on March 8.

For Sara, International Women’s Day remains significant because, as she says ‘it’s a chance for women to come together  to hear about issues and get different perspectives on things that are happening not only in Australia but overseas as well sometimes it’s a useful opportunity for Australian women to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine the challenges and difficulties that women in countries that are dealing with a lot more poverty and discrimination, to try and imagine what life is like for them.’ However she is also very clear that International Women’s Day is also an excellent opportunity for men to come along and gain understanding of some of the issues that women face internationally.

In 2005, when Sally Sara took up the post of foreign correspondent to Africa, she was the first woman to do so. Her last post, to Afghanistan, also broke the mould of expectations of female journalists, and yet Sara argues that in many ways her gender could be more of an advantage than a hindrance in the ultra-conservative country. Despite many restrictions on the activities of women in Afghanistan, Sara said she didn’t ever face a situation where she was denied interviews with officials or religious leaders and yet found her ability to enter the private homes of women – forbidden to male reporters – allowed her to ‘walk on both sides of the street’. In a society segregated by gender, Sara said that being a female reporter allowed her ‘to have access to women to be able to tell their stories – and that’s really important. In a place like Afghanistan women and children make up almost three quarters of the population so it’s crucial that their voices are heard.’

While she is very clear that her role is that of journalist, not an activist it is clear that ensuring that the stories of people without much of a voice in international affairs are heard is important to Sara. Reflecting on the stories that she felt had been most significant for her, she identified the 2010 floods in Pakistan which affected some 20 million people, saying,

‘It received some international coverage but it wasn’t the biggest story in the world. We went and covered that and I felt a very strong sense of purpose in getting the stories of those people out, because what happened in those floods it didn’t just reveal the suffering of people from that immediate disaster – it also washed into public view people who had been suffering from severe malnutrition who hadn’t received any attention or focus.’

‘Malnutrition rates [were] equal and beyond those that are recorded in very troubled parts of Africa so it was really a chance to document not only the disaster but the severe humanitarian issues facing many millions of people in areas of Pakistan which are normally out of reach to the international  media.’

It’s not many who would relish a career that thrusts them into the frontline of disasters and conflicts. It would seem that a passion for journalism would have to be accompanied by a massive dose of courage to take on the role on foreign correspondent in some of the areas Sara has covered. Yet Sara is quick to dismiss courage as an attribute she claims or aspires to, explaining that,

‘In places like Afghanistan people require courage to do the most basic things  to walk to work to go to the market when there are attacks in place. Families don’t know what will happen when they pack their kids off for school; or if the husband or wife goes out to run an errand or go to work – so people live with courage every day.

‘Courage can be admirable and I don’t even know that it’s something that I have, but I think other things are far more important. It’s far more important for me the best daughter that I can be; my role as an auntie, as a sister, as a friend – those things are far more important. Courage is kind of one dimensional in a way, it’s just necessary in some situations.’

While In the Philippines recently completing research for an upcoming book, this was brought home for her at a shrine to the People Power Revolution,

‘There was a plaque up on the wall saying that the people power revolution wasn’t just an act of courage, it was an act of love. It said that ‘While bravery is admirable, love is indispensable’ and that kind of hit me you know?  There’d no point in being regarded as a brave journalist but not being a good person. The things connected to family and friends are far more important – courage is just something that’s needed to get through in extreme circumstances, it’s not something extraordinary.’

After almost twelve years on the road as a foreign correspondent, Sara is returning to Australia to take up a role as Senior Rural and Regional Affairs reporter with the ABC.

‘This was the job that was previously held by my colleague Paul Lockyer, who died in a helicopter crash last year along with our cameraman John Beam and helicopter pilot Gary Ticehurst. Paul had a reputation for being extremely professional he reported with a great deal of skill and empathy particularly for the people in rural and regional Australia so I’m very honoured to come back and take up that job and I’m very much looking forward to coming back to rural and regional Australia and covering the very important issues which exist there.

‘It will be strange coming back to Australia but it will be wonderful too. I’ve been away for a long time – I think I’ve only been back in Australia for about two of the past twelve years so it will be a really joyful time to be back.

‘I enjoy being a foreign correspondent but the time comes when you need to come home for a while, be with family and friends and recharge. I just want to have normality and have my safety back. Just to enjoy life without looking over my shoulder… that will be a delight’.

Sally Sara speaks at International Women’s Day breakfast on March 9th as the guest of UN Women Australia’s Perth Chapter. www.outinperth.com/international-womens-day-2012

Written By Zoe Carter

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