A Personal Reflection on World Humanitarian Day 2016 and women’s safety

Sarah Sudan

The author in happier times in South Sudan circa 2005/2006

In 2012, I took a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course before I went to Libya with the British government for the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. I was really nervous as in mid 2011, there had been an attack on the hotel where I had been working in Kabul, Afghanistan days after I left and I realized I had never felt safe in that country and didn’t trust UNDSS to ensure my safety. I was most nervous about how I would react to the “fake kidnapping” part of the training- and as it turns out – I was fine, but one of my colleagues was not. She was a survivor and experienced a flashback during this section of the training. Our mostly male trainers had no psychologist on standby and were not prepared to support her so I was called in to help despite not having the relevant training or credentials.

This all came rushing back to me a few days ago when the AP report about the attacks on the Terrain House in Juba, Sudan and the rape of expatriate aid workers hit the news. The rage and sadness I felt about the UN’s refusal to deploy peacekeepers to protect these civilians threw me into a sad dark place. I then learned that the US Embassy (MY EMBASSY!) had also failed to protect these American citizens and had “made some phone calls.” Eventually the Government of Sudan sent in someone to rescue the people but the local staff of the hotel and 3 women were left behind to be rescued the next day by a private security force.

What must it have felt like to be the women “left behind”? And I couldn’t stop myself from immediately imagining myself as one of the three expatriate women left overnight with the rapist soldiers waiting to be rescued the next morning. I had to stop myself to save my sanity.

The most frustrating part for me is the false sense of security that being nearby the peacekeepers provided these aid workers. I am furious at the security officers who re-assured the people in the house that they would be fine. From the article: “One of the women gang-raped said security advisers from an aid organization living in the compound told residents repeatedly that they were safe because foreigners would not be targeted. She said: “This sentence, ‘We are not targeted,’ I heard half an hour before they assaulted us.”

Too often, our “security professionals” ignore women’s needs or have REALLY outdated viewpoints on how women can protect themselves. In Bangkok, at the recent women’s day- UNDSS told women that they should “smile more” to protect themselves and in Jordan, the UNHCR security personnel who was giving me a brief there said I should “dress decently” (to which I responded, since I’m a decent person anything I wear is, by definition, decent). Aid workers everywhere are deeply shaken by this event and what it shows about the lack of effective safety and security systems in the field.

Our so-called safety systems are not always going to be there. It’s obvious that we, as women, are often alone out there, and as every woman in the world has learned, in a world where rape culture is the norm and women are devalued, you have to take responsibility for your own safety and security.

August 19 is World Humanitarian Day where we remember our colleagues who were killed in the line of duty. Today, and every day, we should be thinking about the particular vulnerability to rape that women aid workers face in the line of duty.  Female aid workers everywhere are particularly deeply shaken by this event. Some are privately expressing how afraid they feel but that they feel worse for abandoning South Sudanese women who bear the brunt of the sexual violence. Will it be worse for them if we leave?

I’m too angry and sad to write a more professional polished piece – so I give you instead, a piece that I wrote about this in 2012.

Gender-based Violence and Security

This blog post was published by USAID to coincide 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 DC, hosted by the Inter-Agency Gender Working Group, funded by USAID. It is no longer available online but a copy of it can be found here. Tips for female travelers that I wrote can be found here.

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.

“Keeping International Workers Safe:  Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence”

Sarah Martin, 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 areas. Not only are journalists at risk but also aid workers–and not just 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 while 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 of 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. In addition, the purveyors of these trainings are mostly male and show little awareness to 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.” While they took her out of 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 issue.  Women also face another security threat 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 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 is their organization prepared to handle these 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 about what medical care a survivor may need or what rights a sexual assault survivor might 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 [1] and should be prepared to support them. This means bringing the issue of sexual assault up in security trainings and sensitizing the trainers and security personnel on how to address the issue – but not by restricting women’s access to “dangerous areas” but by making sure female employees are informed of the dangers, provided with information on how to protect themselves, and given sensitive and adequate support by their organizations in case the worst happens.

[1] Global statistics show that 1 out of 3 women has experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault.

* From the chapter I wrote entitled “Sexual Assault: Preventing And Responding As An International Travelers in the book Personal Security: A Guide for International Travelers, by Tanya Spencer, ISBN: 9781466559448 commissioned and published by Taylor and Francis, LLC.



Spotlight: It’s time to change this “boys will be boys” culture

cass 4

During the 16 Days of Action to End Gender-Based Violence in 2015, I was asked to conduct a session on gender-based violence for a group of UN humanitarian aid workers who had gathered for a week long training. I was given 90 minutes and was also asked to address Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by humanitarian aid workers. The session was nowhere near long enough to do either topic justice and as I only had about 20 minutes left in my time, I presented the Secretary General’s Bulletin on Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and the 6 core commitments. After I finished my presentation, the room exploded on the point on mandatory reporting and the discussion around breaking the silence around this issue by reporting. REPORT? REPORT TO WHO?! WHAT WILL THEY DO? NOTHING!

The participants felt demoralized and angry about what they saw as the complete lack of accountability in the UN to address this issue. Forget trying to protect the most vulnerable in the world – the displaced and beneficiaries that we work for – what about having some prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse for ourselves? How can we do our job when we suffer from sexual abuse too?

A particularly outspoken participant challenged why we even report when we will most likely get fired for doing so and talked a lot about the lack of accountability of senior managers (she was speaking from personal experience – having been assaulted herself by her boss). She gave examples of people getting away with it in numerous stations she had been in and of whistleblowers being punished. Other workshop participants, both male and female, talked about how people get promoted or even moved on if the issue is brought up. Everyone had an example of sexual exploitation and abuse by an aid worker being ignored by their managers or even experiencing their manager doing the abuse. I myself have heard numerous stories throughout my career as an aid worker – in both NGOs and the UN*.

I offered up a spirited defense along the lines of “If you don’t break the silence and speak up on behalf of the vulnerable, the system will never change.” I tried to rally them that we must all advocate and act to change the system. I was able to give one example of places where people were fired. But in general, they are right. They don’t trust the system and they don’t even know what the reporting mechanisms are.

I reached out to a number of people I know who work on this issue to see what they thought. The general perspective was pretty bleak. The current system is so broken – so what is the point in even trying to report or set up systems?

With that attitude, its no wonder that we don’t see many systems in place and that no one reports. I asked for some positive examples of where reporting has worked so I  can try to encourage others to start taking this issue up and not feeling like they are alone and will lose their job if they report.

I got some very interesting responses:

“The lack of whistle blower protection is a major (and some may argue intentional) flaw in the Secretary General’s bulletin.”

“Unfortunately, no examples [of perpetrators being held accountable] come to mind.. I do recall that we did receive a similar training and had an explosion at the staff counselor over the same issue – this was about 5 years ago.. Nothing has changed – abusers are promoted to get ‘rid of the problem.'”

“The only time I reported something the Human Resources person informed me that the person I reported had many reports against him and that this had been recorded on his performance review with a recommendation to remove him but that the SG’s office (this was in Kofi Annan’s time) had over-ridden the recommendation and that the guy was promoted into the very senior position he was in when I reported him (for having a local girlfriend who was at most 16, using UN resources to shuttle her to/from school, harassing local female staff members among other things).”

“The lack of accountability starts from the performance appraisal system. Managers are so afraid of raising ‘behavioral issues’ because of the possibility of rebuttal and endless cases in internal tribunals that too often the method ‘out and up’ is applied. It has to be said also that SEA is difficult to prove, so most ‘cases’ will never reach the threshold to be accepted as such.”

What is going on? Why is it appropriate for male co-workers in the humanitarian aid sector -NGOs and the UN but it seems to be particularly egregious within the UN – to act like unenlightened stereotypes of men from half a century ago? People outside the industry are surprised when they hear that an organization that is affiliated with “do -gooders” actually struggles with sexual harassment inside.

The humanitarian aid world’s dirty little secret is getting less secret.

Sexual harassment in the humanitarian world is not a new issue. On the contrary, it is a problem that has been quietly discussed amongst the humanitarian community for years. If the UN and the rest of the humanitarian world cannot manage to deal with sexual harassment of employees, how can we possibly deal with the larger issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of our beneficiaries, the most vulnerable?

This is both a systematic and an individual agency problem. There have been a couple of events that lead me to believe that the time is right to push hard for reform.

  • The Guardian’s “Secret Aid Worker” series and the “Fifty Shades of Aid” Facebook group (with over 4000 participants) have become places where aid workers and gender-based violence activists can publicly share some of the stories that are normally just passed along within missions after a few drinks. We’re turning a spotlight on the issue and finding that we’re not alone.
  • Megan Nobert courageously came out and spoke about her sexual assault by a fellow aid worker and the UN’s refusal to do anything. This experience galvanized her to create a movement called Report the Abuse. While, there have been other campaigns and projects in the past that have addressed incidents of sexual violence in conflict zones (some of which have led to the development of sexual exploitation and abuse policies for humanitarian staff), these efforts have laid an essential foundation upon which this current campaign rests. This project is about also harassment, assault and other forms of gender-based violence, regardless of whether the incident is experienced by a local or expatriate employee, and regardless of the gender, class or position of the survivor. This project has launched a website, with a linked survey, which attempts to begin addressing these questions.
  • The NGO Aids-Free World has revived attention on the horrific problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers*. Anders Kompass from OHCHR publicly fought being suspended for leaking a confidential report that documented the rape of young children by UN peacekeepers in Central African Republic. Aids-Free World is lead by Stephen Lewis, the former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, who is a very outspoken critic of the UN and they have a project called Code Blue that is focused on this.  They are calling for an independent body to investigate the UN since they can’t be trusted to do this themselves.
  • On Saturday, December 5th, 2015, eighteen women working as humanitarian aid workers met together in Conakry, Guinea (one of my outspoken training participants was one of them). They called themselves “Women in Aid” and represent diverse nationalities, positions, fields, religions, ages. And, as they discovered during the course of their meeting, they all shared significant challenges as women in the humanitarian field. Everyone expressed having, at some moment in their career, been discriminated against, harassed, confronted with sexual violence in or around the workplace.  To find out whether or not these were 18 isolated cases and how many women in the humanitarian field have similar experiences and concerns – they launched a survey for women aid workers.
  • Karin Landgren wrote a report called “The Lost Agenda: Gender Parity in Senior UN Appointments” that noted that the rhetoric of UN achievements has overshadowed the reality.  A list of senior officials indicates that the UN designates some 80-plus persons worldwide as undersecretaries-general  (USGs), and over 100 as assistant secretaries-general (ASGs).  Almost twenty years ago, the UN made a commitment to achieving gender parity in managerial and decision-making roles by the year 2000. This target was missed, so subsequent resolutions aimed for parity in “the very near future”, except for the category of Secretary-General’s Special Representatives and Special Envoys, which was to be gender-balanced by 2015. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he has appointed more women to senior UN positions than ever. In 2011, he told a gathering that the UN’s top humanitarian official, high commissioner for human rights, head of management, top lawyer, and “even our top cop, are all women.”  Today in 2016, we’ve actually gone backwards. They are all men. Commitments to gender equality have become a joke.
  • A group of senior gender advisors deployed within different agencies in the UN read Landgren’s article on the lack of gender parity in senior UN appointments and wrote a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asking him to act up on it.  There is a petition supporting this letter that you can also sign here.

So what are the linkages between all these things?

The lack of gender equality in the UN  including the lack of women in senior leadership positions is one factor that may be leading to sexual harassment of staff being ignored and swept under the carpet (although having women managers doesn’t guarantee action). This ‘boys club‘ allows a culture that ignores this issue to flourish. While reporting systems are set up in some places, very few people trust the system and are willing to report because there is very little action that actually takes place and the perpetrator is rarely punished. People are afraid that if they come forward they will be labeled ‘trouble maker’ and be fired.  The general perception is that the humanitarian aid world is a ‘boys club’ that protects the perpetrators. Victims and whistle blowers are pressured to drop their cases. Often the unbelievable lethargy of the bureaucracy stifles the investigation until it’s all been forgotten and the victim left to languish in a limbo. Sometimes the perpetrators are just transferred (remind you of the Catholic Church and the film Spotlight, anyone?

We must hold someone accountable – we cannot allow the system to sweep it under the carpet any longer. Changing the “boys must be boys” culture cannot be done by allowing the boys club to investigate themselves. There must be outside pressure and attention to force them to reform.  All of these issues are linked and we have to push for change now.

  • Keep the spotlight on this issue. Start discussions! Ask your agency what the process is to address sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Ask them to schedule a staff wide meeting to explain the procedures.
  • Help document the scope of the problem. Participate in the surveys for “Women in Aid” (for women only) and “Report the Abuse” to document your experiences. Encourage others to do so as well.
  • Call for the Secretary General to do something about changing this boys club culture. Sign the UN Gender Equality Petition and circulate it with others. Put this issue on the agenda for the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit.
  • Financially support watchdog organizations who are keeping this issue on the agenda such as the Report the Abuse project (https://www.gofundme.com/c54tvwj8) and the Aids-Free World (http://www.aidsfreeworld.org/Donate.aspx)
  • Create a movement – Share your ideas to change this culture in the comments section.

Shine a spotlight on this dirty little secret and let’s change the culture together. In the words of Megan Nobert “Let’s create a humanitarian environment free from sexual harassment, discrimination, exploitation and abuse.” Break the silence and take action!






* In 2005, I wrote a report about sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers based on my travels through West Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti called “Must Boys be Boys: Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers“. It spoke about the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by civilian personnel being harder to address and the culture of “hyper-masculinity” that encouraged these abuses.


Reflecting on healing ourselves

One of the issues I feel strongly about is supporting other women and men who work in the field of gender-based violence in emergencies. I went through a burn out in 2010 while working at MSF Holland as the sexual violence adviser and humanitarian affairs specialist.  It kicked in during a GBV sub-cluster meeting after the Haiti earthquake when the burden of what I was seeing, combined with the grief from losing my father, and the insanity that is working in humanitarian organizations combined in a toxic way (I think my dear Lina Abirafeh was chairing that meeting – it was nothing personal! You’re a fine coordinator!)
I was lucky. MSF provided support on psycho-social issues for staff and the Dutch government gives paid sick leave to recover from burn-out. I got psychological support from a great therapist paid for by my health insurance and picked out by MSF. I saw a “work doctor” once a month who said “sleep, ride your bike, go see art, spend as much time outside as you can and whatever you do, don’t check work emails or talk about work.”
After six long months were I alternately cried and slept a lot and then started taking my doctor’s advice – I started to heal. But I never was really the same again. I like the Japanese idea of kintsukuroi to think about those broken places and how its changed me.
I’ve been talking and thinking about this issue a lot and so have other people. So I was excited to get this email from Leora Ward – someone I’ve known in the GBV in Emergency field for a long time. It’s an amazing new venture and I’m signing up. I hope you’ll consider it too.
From Leora:
“I wanted to share with you my newest creation and passion- a weekend retreat for women in our line of work- so that you might consider coming and/ or sharing this information with other women in your network. My hope is to work with and welcome humanitarian workers and service providers who may benefit from my support. This retreat is just one of those ways and also a very exciting entry point!
You may know that I started a business, Healing in Service, in the last few months to support women in the humanitarian field to better prioritize themselves; shift their lives towards abundance, connection, and energy; and create a movement of people who serve others with inner peace and joy. You can find more information about the work and get a feel for what I am hoping to achieve at www.healinginservice.com
The bottom line, is that I work with women who are serving in important ways but are also looking to move beyond their work to integrate different parts of their lives, personally and professionally, and are wanting more skills to live in gratitude alongside their desire, pleasure, and deepest longing in the outside world. 
I want to support these women to:
– Gain clarity about their immediate needs and values
– Check-in with their bodies and their stories in the present moment
– Heal and recover from past experiences that are still with them
– Determine ways to nurture, love, and be good to themselves
– Move gracefully through transition and periods of instability
If you know women who may resonate with this work or message and are looking for some additional resources in their lives, whom you think might be interested in this retreat, and who are ready for making the choices that will bring them to deeper alignment with their passion, needs, and values- it would be great to know more about them. I am really eager to find women who want to join me along this path.”

Please  feel free to share this with others and contact Leora through her website or her facebook page to get more information.

 2016 can be the year when we realize capacity means more than just training but we have to look at ourselves holistically.

Exploring Gaps and Challenges in GBV in Humanitarian Emergencies

The Small Arms Survey is conducting a survey among humanitarian professionals, in order to explore gaps and challenges inherent to Gender-based Violence (GBV) programming in humanitarian emergencies and to identify means to bring about tangible innovation. This survey was commissioned by Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), a partnership between Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) and the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP).

We invite all those working in any area or sector of humanitarian response (such as in relief operations conducted in response to: natural or industrial disasters; armed conflict; and settings afflicted by high levels of violence, disease, or famine) to share their views on current practices and possible ways to improve them. We welcome input from current and former experts, professionals, and aid workers.

Please proceed with the questionnaire if you fit this profile and have been working in the humanitarian field for at any point in the past 10 years. Your experience does not need to necessarily include programmes incorporating a response to GBV. The survey takes about 20 minutes to complete. Note that the questionnaire is also available in French and Spanish.


The link to the questionnaire in English, French and Spanish is available at : http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/?gbv-survey

Ending Gender-Based Violence in Humanitarian Settings: Let’s Make it Happen


This entry was originally posted by Julie Lafrenière, Women’s Rights Specialist at Oxfam Canada, on 25 November 2015 at Oxfam’s Gender Justice Blog

In South Sudan, domestic violence is widespread and largely tolerated. In the all-too-common words of two young women from Warrap State: “we are often beaten. When we make a mistake, we are beaten – and there are so many mistakes.” So when widespread conflict broke out across the country in December 2013, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, it was unfortunately not surprising that gender-based violence (GBV) was a major threat for women living in IDP and refugee camps. Yet some aid workers struggled to fully grasp the issue and take action in a timely way, and at times exacerbated the situation by failing to incorporate GBV considerations into the design and delivery of the very services that were meant to protect and save lives. They also missed opportunities to address some of the underlying women’s empowerment and gender equality issues that could have led to lasting change.

South Sudan is by no means an isolated example. When I traveled to Jordan in 2014, the international community was already struggling to deal with the massive influx of refugees, and humanitarians on the ground had real concerns about the rise in violence against women and girls. In the camps, colleagues from a number of organizations described challenges related to protecting women and girls – such as ensuring proper lighting, locks on latrines and safe fuel collection. Although many actors were aware of the risks to women, girls and marginalized groups, they did not systematically include them in the design and implementation of projects.  And although they were aware of their sector-specific guidance – such as theSphere Handbook – they faced huge challenges in incorporating GBV into their programming, both technically (in terms of what to do) and operationally (in terms of how to do it). There was a clear need for a practical tool that would help them prevent GBV in camps and in urban areas. Fortunately, practical and relevant assistance is now available, in the form of new guidelines.

Cover: 2015 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Gender-based Violence (GBV) GuidelinesI was in Jordan as one of the authors of the revised Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines for Integrating Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action (GBV Guidelines). Following a two-year consultative process led by UNICEF and UNFPA, the revised GBV Guidelines were officially launched in September in South Africa.

The first version of the Guidelines was published in September 2005. Nearly 10 years later, the humanitarian community has made significant progress come in moving GBV from the side-lines, where it was viewed as a “niche” area of work, to the forefront of humanitarian action. During those 10 years, the UN established a Special Representative focused explicitly on sexual violence in conflict; the Security Council passed critical resolutions promoting a more robust security response to sexual violence; many UN entities and NGOs scaled up their engagement in this area of work; and far more young professionals are choosing to focus their careers on the prevention of GBV and Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG).

These revised Guidelines are a practical, field-tested tool for humanitarian actors and crisis-affected communities. An important contribution of the Guidelines is that they show that all humanitarian actors have a role to play in preventing GBV, whether a water engineer or a food security specialist. Specifically, they target actors working in 13 sectors, including Education, the theme of this year’s 16 Days of Activism. In many humanitarian settings, attending school can be a risky endeavor. The erosion of standard protection mechanisms in humanitarian emergencies means that students and education personnel—particularly females—often face an increased risk of sexual harassment, sexual assault or abduction while travelling to and from school. There are also significant risks in schools: lack of supervisory staff increases the risk of bullying, sexual harassment and assault occurring on school grounds by peers as well as teachers and other adults. The Gender-based Violence Guidelines make a number of practical recommendations for designing and implementing education interventions that reduce or minimize risk to women and girls including, for example, considering alternative, informal, or non-traditional approaches and ensuring that locations and times of programmes meet the needs of women and adolescent girls who have domestic and family-related responsibilities.

As the 16 Days of Activism get underway in 2015, I am reflecting back on my time in Jordan and other humanitarian settings – and seeing the opportunity that the new Guidelines afford all of us to treat gender-based violence prevention and response as a life-saving priority right from the start of humanitarian crises – across all sectors. Let’s make it happen.

This entry posted by Julie Lafrenière, Women’s Rights Specialist at Oxfam Canada focussing on GBV in humanitarian settings. Oxfam was actively engaged in the drafting of the Guidelines and is supporting their roll-out and implementation. Ending GBV and VAWG is critical to Oxfam’s mission of addressing the root causes of poverty and suffering.

Photo: Gathering wood – the missing link between eating or going hungry in South Sudan’s Bor refugee camp. Credit: Kieran Doherty/ Oxfam, May 2014

Let’s get with it! Sexism and Gender Equality Mainstreaming in the Humanitarian Sector


  • A senior gender-based violence (GBV) advisor finds herself sitting in a Humanitarian Country Team meeting with the heads of UN agencies discussing how to program CERF funds. At this meeting she is explicitly told by the head of a large UN agency that GBV work is “not life-saving” so shouldn’t be considered for funding (despite the clear CERF guidelines that note that it fulfills the life-saving criteria).
  • Attending a workshop full of gender advisors means that the coffee breaks are filled with weary and cynical talk about frustration at the inability get a meeting with the humanitarian coordinator because gender is seen as just “window dressing” to appease headquarters and a box to be checked rather than actual commitment to improving gender inequality.
  • A recent story in the Guardian about sexual harassment in the UN relates a story of sniggering senior management men mocking a gender presentation and then commenting on their young female colleague’s attractiveness.
  • GBV specialists often talk about being denied seats on the assessment team and fighting with other agencies to include basic questions about what is happening to the women during natural disasters and conflict settings. “We’re doing an urgent life-saving assessment, we don’t have time to deal with that. You can wait,” is usually the justification.

The gender equality and GBV field (which is staffed predominantly with women) abound with stories like this. Our common refrain: Why is it so difficult to get otherwise smart and committed humanitarians onboard with supporting gender equality and fighting the repercussions of gender inequality – i.e. gender-based violence? Is it due to sexism?

The negative reaction to and lack of understanding about the word “gender” and its feisty sister “feminism” have been written about and discussed in the past year (high profile feminists like Beyoncé helping the “f word” break into the mainstream media in the USA in 2014). If you ask most humanitarians what they think about “gender mainstreaming” or “GBV specialists,” eyes begin to roll and the anecdotes about “shrill angry GBV women” come out – usually from men but also from women. I always wonder – do other sectors in the humanitarian system get such reactions? Do people who are passionate about hand-washing in the Water and Sanitation sector get laughed at by fellow humanitarians? If you care passionately about finding environmentally friendly ways to build health clinics, do people run out of the room covering their ears when you bring it up? Why is addressing gender inequality and women’s issues seen as so toxic and unrelated to humanitarian work and why is it difficult to discuss this within the humanitarian aid system?

The humanitarian field’s resistance to meaningfully working on gender equality and its lack of understanding about mainstreaming gender equality into the humanitarian work extends to the way the field – and even our own gender colleagues – talks about the issue. We “do gender” now and we forget about the equality part of the equation. There are “gender advisors” who can’t tell you the difference between sex and gender but whose job involves disaggregating data by sex and age (without really understanding why we are doing that). Projects are submitted that have sprinkled the words “women, girls, boys and men” (or my new least favorite acronym wgbm) throughout and are seen as “promoting gender equality”. Somehow, we have had to turn our work on fighting for equal rights for women and girls in the humanitarian response into a less threatening technocratic “ doing gender” which more acceptable than actually talking about sexism and inequality and the discrimination against women and girls’ needs.

Is it due to sexism? The internalized culture of sexism within the humanitarian system – particularly within the UN has been described in a number of articles that have examined the nature and challenges of gender mainstreaming in international development organizations*. These articles have focused on the sexist culture within the UN but NGOs are far from exempt from these charges. Does this sexism influence the ability for us to address gender equality in a meaningful way in our work? I would argue yes. Despite 15 years work on “mainstreaming” gender equality into humanitarian systems, working gender is still seen as a niche issue within humanitarian work and is always linked to “women’s issues” which somehow carries with it a negative connotation linked to the word feminism.

The current fashionable way to combat this unpopularity seems to be the introduction of working with men and boys into the work (although gender activists have been working on this since 1999 at least when I attended my first Inter-agency Gender Working Group at USAID). At the 2014 UK Global Summit on to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, there was (some would say) an overemphasis of the plight of men and boys who are sexual violence victims in conflict which current statistics show us only amount to about 10% of survivors in big emergencies like the DRC and in national surveys in developed countries amount to about 3% of survivors. There’s a push by some UN agencies (encouraged by certain actors) to demand equal attention and funding for male survivors with female survivors despite the evidence that the victims are overwhelmingly female. Working with men and boys is the new “microfinance” and exciting for donors and the media. There was an announcement of a “ground breaking” UN conference on gender equality that would only allow men (making it different from most conferences that aren’t about reproductive health or gender – how?) and women’s rights activists have raised concerns about the increased emphasis on men and boys diverting funding earmarked for female-oriented projects.

Academics* have highlighted the challenges of gender equality mainstreaming in our humanitarian system.  They argue that our approach has ignored the way gendered inequalities are deeply woven into the fabric of the international system and that our bureaucratic method of “mainstreaming” has drowned out the voices calling for gender equality. This has effectively “neutered” gender equality work to make it more palatable. Sexism has also seemed to be active in the creation of the newest United Nations agency: UN Women aka the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. A 2010 paper from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex analysed the experience of feminists within the UN struggling with the institutional sexism of the UN bureaucratic machine. Denied seats at the table and consistently given lower job rankings (the ultimate power currency in the UN system), UN Women has struggled to find its place. At the creation of UN Women, many civil society organizations urged the new agency to adopt a different approach to working at country level to UN agencies in the past. Its approach should be transformative, leading to actual change. Stacking the ranks with old school former UNDP managers doesn’t seem to be achieving this goal.

Even the media (not always a place of gender sensitivity) notices the sexism at the UN, “Gender equality is honored in name both inside and outside [the United Nations], but is more likely to be honored in the breach inside. At least one senior official still pats women on the head, and the women’s rooms were situated by someone who must have had an earlier career creating mazes or running scavenger hunts.” Recent stories about sexism in humanitarian agencies in The Guardian and the comments by female aid workers on the article, in Facebook groups, and in face to face awareness-raising sessions I have conducted confirm this.

I have also seen and heard about this in my own work in GBV and gender equality work in different agencies and countries. I fought long and hard at Refugees International to have the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping missions to be taken seriously and finally convinced my two male bosses to allow me to write about it in our peacekeeping work. The topic was mostly dropped when I left and 10 years later, the problems addressed in my report Must Boys be Boys? Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Missions don’t seem to have changed at all. Attending the high-level session on this topic at the UK Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was a depressing step back 10 years into the past. At MSF, I faced complete indifference by some of my male and female colleagues when I raised issues of sexual harassment, understanding domestic violence and marital rape or sexual exploitation (At MSF, we weren’t allowed to talk about the “g word” or gender-based violence but only about sexual violence). “Why are you always going on about this feminism thing?” one female colleague asked me, half joking but also half serious.

I had a long discussion with a friend (let’s call her Cassandra) who also works as a gender specialist. “There is a lack of understanding of how feminism and gender equality are related,” she said, “The two go hand in hand, but the UN system does not want that. It wants gender equality, but the watered down way without shaking the tree, rocking the boat, or changing the status quo.” I agreed with her – sharing my own experiences of how people sprinkle the word “gender” throughout their work without a seeming understanding of what it means. We were worried – the risk is that the word “gender” and the philosophy of feminism have become divorced. The more we disassociate “gender” with gender equality, the less it becomes about fighting for women’s rights and the more its just a checkbox.

Feminism seems to be a dirty word at the UN. “I honestly don’t know what is so radical about wanting equality, for women to be treated with dignity and respect,” Cassandra lamented before we moved onto our normal discussions of delicious foods we had eaten recently. But this idea that “Feminism is the problem” persists – evaluations of the Gender Capacity (GenCap) project in 2010 and 2011 both noted complaints from UN agencies who had hosted Gen Cap advisors about the “feminist” agenda of some as if it were negative thing that distracted from mainstreaming a gender perspective in humanitarian work.

It is not just gender advisors who feel this way.In a comprehensive survey launched by Oxfam before the creation of UN Women, an activist said “we are seeing an increase in “subtle patriarchal resistance” within organisations that are mainly male dominated. We have observed the systematic marginalisation of women’s rights organisations – naming them as “radical” in their approach to women’s issues. The agenda for achieving women’s rights and gender equality are compromised by the type of people appointed to such positions.” At GBV gatherings and meetings, specialists mention that any attempts to push for more attention to GBV in emergencies are often seen as being “pushy, too feminist, or negative.” One GBV specialist that I know said “If you get angry as a person, they say it reflects poorly on the sector. [Compare their complaints to those] about a WASH manager who washes his hands all the time, that’s positive! He’s clean. But when you mention sexist attitudes… when you are a ‘GBV person’ in a big group- its hard to be that person.” Others agreed noting “GBV and gender specialists are viewed as a bunch of chest-beating activists” and saying that we have to be “agreeable” and “nice” to get other sectors to work with us. In the quest to be palatable to this humanitarian system, in order to fit into this male oriented system we are told that we need to behave in a certain way. “Be agreeable – don’t rock the boat.” Gender equality and GBV activists comply and thus we too perpetuate the status quo and fail to push for transformative gender equality.

At a recent GenCap workshop, we were encouraged during an exercise to step out of our “nice roles” while advising as a way to explore different ways to be effective. It felt uncomfortable at first for me. Like many in our overwhelmingly feminine sector, I sometimes feel that I have to play to traditional gender roles in order to be respected, liked and accepted and heard otherwise our message of equality for women will not be accepted. No one wants to be the “bitchy Gender advisor” yet in the immortal words of Tina Fey “Bitches get stuff done.” There is this push by some humanitarians and even supported by some gender people for us to be less feminist, less activist, less focus on women’s empowerment and to be more diverse to the point that diminishes our expertise and focus. Last time I checked, women and girls were still the oppressed and marginalized, controlled and sexually abused due to their gender.  Are we supposed to ignore this?

The strategy of divorcing “gender” work from the fight for feminism and women’s equality in order to make it more palatable may have backfired in achieving our goals. “Gender mainstreaming” sometimes seems to have moved away from addressing gender inequality and fighting for a real effort to change culture and has led to “gender” being a technocratic term that means almost nothing aside from saying ‘women, men, boys, and girls’ throughout applications to the CERF in hopes of getting a “2A” on the gender marker.

Maybe its time we actively embrace feminism (but not just white women’s western feminism but a truly global feminism that is linked to anti-colonialism) and link up in solidarity with movements to liberate women and embrace women’s equality in the countries where we work rather than turning “mainstreaming gender” into a technocratic term that few understand but most know they are tired of dealing with.

In the words of my friend, Cassandra, “Gender equality requires an understanding the politics of women and oppression and all that feminism stuff. So let’s get with it.”

* Goetz 2003, Prugl and Lustgarten 2006, Rao and Kelleher 2005, Klugman (2008), True (2003) and Charlesworth (2010).