16 Day Challenge: Keeping International Workers Safe: Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence

from US Agency for International Development
Published on 29 Nov 2012 View Original

This post coincides with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence event, “Who Takes Care of the Caregivers? Providing Care and Safety for Staff in Gender-based Violence Settings,” taking place on Thursday, Nov. 29th 2012 in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Inter-Agency Gender Working Group and funded by USAID.

Gender-based Violence (GBV) is an issue that impacts aid workers – not just beneficiaries and not just staff that works in GBV settings. This post examines agencies’ duty to care for their workers by preventing and responding to GBV.

Sarah Martin is a consultant and Specialist on Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence The sexual assault of the journalists Lara Logan, Mona Eltahawy and two unnamed British and French journalists in Egypt shocked the world and brought the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) against Westerners working in conflict areas to the forefront. Clearly, GBV does not only affect “the locals” in these contexts. Not only are journalists at risk but also aid workers–and not just aid workers working in conflict settings or in GBV program areas.

I recently interviewed a large cross section of women travelers who work in a number of fields (including international development, human rights, humanitarian action and international business) about their experiences as women traveling and working overseas. Many of them brought up their frustration that sexual harassment and sexual assault were never raised in security trainings, and that agencies refused to address this as a real security concern.

Increasingly, aid agencies are providing more “realistic” security trainings that simulate “hostile environments to prepare their employees for gunfire, kidnappings and other events in the field.” While some of these trainings talk about sexual assault, there are no discussions on how to prevent sexual assault or how to react or support colleagues if they are assaulted. Sexual harassment in the workplace as a security issue is often ignored. This is despite the alarming fact that global statistics show that 1 out of 3 women has experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime.* The purveyors of these trainings are mostly male and show little awareness on the issue of sexual assault or the gender concerns of female trainees. I recently attended one such training where one of the participants relived her own sexual assault from years ago while undergoing a simulated “kidnapping.” When she completed the simulation, there were no psychologists or female trainers available to talk to her.

Female development and aid workers have the same security concerns as their male counterparts; crime and landmine accidents and armed robberies do not discriminate. Security measures, trainings and manuals are the same for men and women, and most agencies take a “gender-blind” approach to security. Most security officers are men and many of them come from a military background. This gender-blind approach to security, however, leaves out a major target – women. Women also face security threats that most men do not encounter – gender-based violence, namely sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Rape myths promote the false idea that women are only sexually assaulted by strangers. While this can, and does, happen, women are much more likely to be attacked by someone familiar to them – a co-worker, a driver or a friend. Most of the women I interviewed shared stories about fending off sexual harassment by colleagues or actual cases of sexual assault in the field.

Rarely are organizations prepared to handle gender-based violence issues. While there has been some action taken on “building safe organizations,” the focus has been preventing sexual exploitation of our beneficiaries by our staff. But there is not sufficient attention paid to sexual harassment of our staff by our staff, or adequate support for staff that have been sexually assaulted. There is little information in the security manuals that I have reviewed that shed light on what medical care survivors may need or what rights they have. Nor is there guidance on reporting to local authorities, human resources or guarantees of confidentiality. Responsible employers must be prepared to understand and deal with the fact that their employees might become victims of sexual assault and should be prepared to support them. This means bringing attention to the issue of sexual assault in security trainings and sensitizing the trainers and security personnel so they can effectively address the issue. We must not restrict women’s access to “dangerous areas,” and we should make sure female employees are informed of such security dangers, are given information on how to protect themselves and are provided sensitive and adequate support by their organizations in case the worst happens.

*Martin, Sarah (to be published May 14, 2013). Sexual Assault: Preventing And Responding As An International Traveler. In T. Spencer, Personal Security: A Guide for International Travelers. Boca Raton: CRC Press.