“Holier than thou” MSF needs its own #MeToo moment [Update]

cass 4

[Update: Sadly, MSF USA has chosen to edit the video that I link to in this blog. They say that this video that was never meant to be public but they want to keep the link up. However, they do not acknowledge anywhere or on the youtube link that they shortened it . This is extremely disappointing as it makes them seem as if they are covering things up and not serious about addressing the issues I raise here. I have notified them that I noticed and that I made a copy of the video before I published. in contrast, the female lead MSF UK and OC-Amsterdam have been very open to listen to women and men who have come forward since I published this to talk about their own experiences.]

This is my témoignage about the sexist culture of MSF Amsterdam where I worked from 2007-2011. Its the product of a lot of thinking and processing since the #metoo hashtag appeared, re-triggering lots of toxic memories and suppressed emotions. – Sarah Martin

The Beginning

I was thrilled when I got the news that there was a position available as Humanitarian Advisor at MSF Holland in the Humanitarian Affairs Department. This would be the perfect next step for me to build on my humanitarian advocacy work at Refugees International. Bringing my advocacy experience to an operational powerhouse like MSF that believed in speaking out and temoinage was truly a dream job for me.

I was not naïve as I entered MSF, however. I had been working for 4 years at Refugees International where I investigated and pursued issues that I found as I traveled to conflict zones and refugee camps in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, South Sudan and Northern Uganda. I wrote about aid being mislaid and petty feuds between agency heads meaning that IDPs in Liberia didn’t get a food distribution. I wrote about the failure of the government to consult with IDPS before forcibly moving them to new towns in Sudan. I felt like these things helped a bit. But my real passion was writing about gender issues and trying to support women who suffered in these humanitarian crises. I have focused on these issues in my career ever since.

On my first ever Refugees International field trip in 2003, I met a female MSF Head of Mission in Liberia who told me about the trafficking of Ukrainian women into Liberia and started me on the path of learning about sexual exploitation and abuse. This led to my writing the 2005 report “Must Boys be Boys? Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Missions,” in which I discussed the hyper-masculine culture of peacekeeping and how the international community had to stop turning a blind eye to the abuses of women and children in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I met with MSF midwives and female humanitarian affairs officers uncovering the rapes in Darfur in 2004. They demanded that we do something and join them in speaking out. So I wrote about that and met with policy makers globally demanding change, lobbying for greater pressure from the US government to allow raped women to receive medical care without a police report and to refer Bashir to the International Criminal Court. While still working for Refugees International, I went to MSF clinics in DRC in 2005 where nurses told me about the horrors that raped women faced. So I worked with my colleagues and a new Senator, Barack Obama, to sponsor a bill to place greater US attention to the Congo and the terrible way women were treated there.

When I presented Must Boys be Boys at a press conference in New York with Prince Ze’id of Jordan (now head of OHCHR), I was denounced in the New York Times by the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In my press conference, I lined up against the UN lawyers and spoke my truth on behalf of the women who were ignored and raped and left with peacekeeper babies as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations tried to drown me in stale jargon and committees, and status of force agreements.

My male bosses at Refugees International didn’t bother to come to NYC during this event but my female coworkers supported me as I did rounds of interviews with the BBC, CNN, and even Fox News. My male colleagues? Well, I had numerous discussions with some of them about this “gender thing:” Was it really important and couldn’t it tear down support for peacekeeping and weren’t men just like this and besides everyone knows that men use sex workers in the field and stop being so naïve!?! When Glamour magazine, a US fashion magazine that writes about women’s issues, put me in their magazine as Glamour Hero of the Month for March 2006, I was teased at work instead of supported. I had to actually ask the RI communications director to put something on the website about our work on gender and GBV in case any of the MILLIONS of women who read Glamour might want more information to support it.

All this led me to believe that I understood sexism and indifference, intimidation and abuse. And I thought that MSF with its storied Nobel Prize winning history of temoignage and speaking out on behalf of the least powerful in the world was the obvious choice for me to move forward in my fight to support vulnerable women and girls around the world.

I thought I knew about toxic cultures, but I did not.

Life at MSF

I started as a Humanitarian Affairs Advisor in the Amsterdam headquarters at MSF Holland in April 2007. Almost immediately, a number of events made me realize that I had joined a sexist and toxic organization.

About a month after starting, I went to my first big meeting where all the country offices came to town. MSF- Holland HQ threw a big party in the cafeteria. Afterwards, everyone headed to the Eik and Linde, a bar right next door to our headquarters. I watched in shocked amazement as the alpha males of MSF raced around trying to hook up and sleep with as many women as possible. I was confused but tried to justify the behavior thinking, “Well they are in from the field, they must be really confined there,” until I realized it was very much the men of headquarters who were doing the chasing around.

During this big meeting, my department called a mandatory work dinner. I was excited to socialize with my new colleagues but then again shocked and confused when my new male boss introduced me to “the Game”. We were expected to go around in a circle and list from 1-10 who we wanted to sleep with at MSF. I thought it was some bizarre form of hazing. And as an American, I felt like ‘– wait – is this acceptable in European work places?’ Because in the US where I had worked previously, if a male boss tried to make his female employees listen to who he wanted to sleep with and list who they wanted to sleep with at a work event, they would be fired. But he was American, he knew this. And wow – all the women he named were about 20 years younger than him and were working in the front desk as volunteers at the office. So was this just a European thing?

And then the married advisor on the “cell” where I worked started going out drinking late with a male friend and with my much younger female intern (who confessed to me that the relationship was not platonic after many drinks out late at night). I was not surprised to hear later that he had been having lots of affairs and later left his wife for someone younger who worked with MSF.

And then there was the senior manager now in a position of power at another MSF section, who I was to “advise,” who also had a partner (and mother of his child) working in the office. I kept hearing about his numerous affairs with women. Field directors told me that they wished he was more discreet because he left all the text messages of the women on the shared country mobile phone whenever he left the country. I was disgusted by this blatant macho shagging around and was complaining about it to a dear friend at the organization, not knowing that she was secretly dating him and had no idea that he was sleeping with other women. I regretted causing her so much pain but mostly I started hating him for making her keep their relationship secret and not telling her about his affairs. She was angry at him and soon their relationship became a huge public drama in the office. The mother of his child had to watch humiliated as my friend broke up with him and everyone began to talk about it. My friend suffered anew when they got back together, only for him to cheat on her shortly thereafter with another woman in the organization who he met while traveling. To make matters worse, he made sure that MSF Headquarters created a job for his new partner in my friend’s department, forcing her to see her replacement regularly.

Throughout this sordid drama I kept asking myself: What kind of management would allow all this drama in their department? Aren’t managers also supposed to be in charge of the morale of their employees? Don’t they want people focused on the work, which is supposed to be about saving lives in humanitarian emergencies? Isn’t our work difficult and challenging enough without constant drama about all these sexual relationships on top of it?

Apparently not at MSF. Male managers – particularly those in the operations department – constantly prioritized their sexual pleasure over their job. Further, their male friends supported and encouraged it, or at the very least kept silent about it so as not to jeopardize their own climb through the ranks.

I recall trying to give a session at the Senior Management Training on the code of conduct and explain why you can’t have sex with sex workers or beneficiaries at MSF – only to be introduced and immediately knocked down to size by one of the HR men: “Here comes Sarah from HAD to tell you why you can’t do all of the things you want to do that are fun.” Fun. Oh yes, there is nothing more fun than resorting to sex work in order to support yourself and your family due to lack of other opportunities for women in the workplace. And listening to these men argue with me about the morality of paid sex work and “what about?” me about sex work in Amsterdam where it was legal. Always playing “devil’s advocate” and “poking holes” always challenging me, leaving me feeling angry and frustrated at the end of every session because I didn’t have a quick enough response to convince them. And I wasn’t enough of a “cool girl” just to go along with it. And feeling super grateful to the “one decent man” who I wish I could name, when he finally had enough of the disrespect coming from my training participants and told them that he agreed with me and shut them down. They respected him. He was a man. He was operations. He was everything I wasn’t.

But unlike the “one decent man”, a man with a good reputation and well respected, these very same male managers used their power as an aphrodisiac and women, who were ambitious and wanted to get ahead, knew they had to play this game of flattering them and flirting with them and even sleeping with them in order to advance. A lesbian friend of mine witnessing one of the debauched field-HQ parties asked me, “How do you do it? Look at these men. They are disgusting.”

My memories: Drunk married men slamming down shots and showing off to women always much younger than them. Sordid affairs. Shaking hands from alcohol in the morning. Lined faces from too many late nights at the local pub, the Eik and Linde.

The Awakening

Being in this environment took its toll. Mental health officers kept quitting. It’s like working in a junkie ward, one of them said to me. A male friend, who eventually burned out and quit MSF, saw me in a very bad place in the coffee room one day. He told me a story about working in the field with a bunch of toxic people and how someone took pity on him and invited him to dinner. Then he invited me to dinner. I couldn’t tell him why I was suffering even though I was not alone. It helped just to be in the company of a decent person.

Another woman at the Psychological Support Unit also helped. She listened and got me to a therapist. But she was told by her sexist boss, that this was not her job. Not her job to help the many of us who turned to her about MSF’s sexist and toxic culture? She was forced out. The same boss told another young women who worked at MSF that maybe she wasn’t cut out for humanitarian work when she asked to leave her placement early because male colleagues were harassing her, stalking her and issuing death threats to her. It wasn’t living in a mud hut in the middle of the Congo that was the thing this woman couldn’t deal with. It was the harassment from her male colleague. Ironically, he now positions himself as the champion to end sexual harassment in the organization, finally coming on board to the issue after 20 years there.

But still I stayed at MSF because there were all the people I had admired so much in the field doing amazing work to support vulnerable people in hard to reach places like Central African Republic and Syria and South Sudan. So many strong and good people. “It’s just a few rotten apples in the barrel.” I reasoned to myself.

So we fought to have trainings on sexual violence response for our sisters in the field (because it was almost only always sisters). And we fought to have a policy in place that all responses had to be prepared to respond to sexual violence in all cases. On my first field visit to the Central African Republic, our midwives and women told me about the high levels of violence against women there but no one wanted to do anything about it. The mental health officer was instructed not to address the issue. And I fought another female coworker for the right to support the women working in our rape clinics in DRC who weren’t allowed to communicate directly with me who could support them in their work. And I fought another colleague to go to India and meet the staff who had taken up addressing sexual violence on their own (without much support form headquarters). And fought for the Papua New Guinea project that was set up specifically because rape was so high there that the violence was worse than many of the places we worked. When I visited there, I had to argue with the male head of mission that “tribal violence” was not more important than the domestic violence and rape that the women we were trying to help were dealing with. They were always looking for a reason not to have to address violence against women. Finally, after so many women fought them to keep the Papua New Guinea program open, it was closed — “handed-over” to an indifferent government who always had the resources to respond but chose not to for years. What happens to those patients now? Who will care for those women, speak out on their behalf, and try to ameliorate the pain of rape and violence?

The Aftermath

And what happens to the MSF women who used to tell me after our trainings, when I raised self-care and sexual harassment and safety as an issue, about the manager who would try to break down their doors after a night of drinking, or who thought he owned them, threatening to end their precious humanitarian careers if they said anything? The senior executive at the bar late at night who stuck his hand up their skirt and leered at them knowingly? These women, usually in the field for the first time – often just left. They were too afraid that they would damage MSF if they said anything. They were willing to accept the damage themselves rather than risk the reputation of MSF. They kept silent with their stories of guys on the emergency team (the biggest cowboys of a cowboy agency) and notorious “womanizers” and talked about it only late at night with other women – passing on advice on how to manage these men. “Everyone knew” but these men are allowed to continue to harass and pursue women in the field. Their sexual pleasure is more important than committing to a professional humanitarian response and a workplace free from sexual harassment.

Speaking of refusing to committing to a workplace free from sexual harassment, watch Jason Cone, the current executive director of MSF USA here, on this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2133&v=46X7BSoedEM) explain how he REFUSES to implement a resolution about making MSF sexual harassment free because “we are an organization full of human beings and there is no possibility for us to create an environment that is 100% free of those things… These things happen. I cannot commit to this because I have not seen a place where these things do not happen. The intent can be there but I will not commit to it.”

In other words, no different from the UN peacekeeping missions I investigated – boys will be boys. Despite the pleas of the MSF women trying to introduce this resolution, maintaining that MSF needs to be aspirational and change the culture, he continuously pushes back. How is he still the director in the litigious USA of all places when he refuses to address this culture? He makes a personal pledge to follow up on any reports, putting the burden on the women to come forward first and trust him. But will he do anything to change the culture? No. “I’m just telling you aspirations are good but human reality is what we are dealing with. I cannot deliver a workplace free of abuse of power or sexual harassment, anyone who claims they can is lying.”

How many women have to come forward though? One of the men who worked with me had three complaints filed by three different women against him after a field visit. The punishment? He was told he would have to travel with our female boss if he went to the field. So he moved to a different section of MSF working in the field  – where who knows what happened to him. Certainly his career didn’t get hurt after these complaints. Coming forward and reporting, as most women know, means YOU leave the organization and nothing happens to the man – they bounce on to another position in the organization.

And I realize now, after I left in 2011 (after 6 months of sick leave that led to a failed re-integration), that I was willing to be damaged and absorb it myself rather than hurt the reputation of the organization. I loved MSF too much. But it was the love of a person in an abusive relationship with a toxic organization that prioritized the libidos and egos of its operational men over the emotional lives and careers of the idealistic young women who came to work there.

MSF was an ugly place to work. I have to admit that even mutual support and solidarity among the women was lacking. When I reached out to other women to see if they felt the same way I did, I left myself open to accusations of being a “typical American prude,” with a female colleague mocking my interest in responding to violence against women as my “gender thing.” Other women who I had looked up to in the organization were openly hostile because they were the ones who “owned” sexual violence response as an issue. They didn’t see the need to build a network to support each other from the men who would not be happy if their privilege was challenged. It was too dangerous to be seen as one of the feminist women bitching about the men’s behavior and how they acted. That might throw them out of the “cool girl” club and stop their climb to the top.

Time’s Up

So, MSF. You have turned a blind eye and let all this abuse and misbehavior continue. Women have tried to work through your systems, have put forward resolutions at general assemblies, have reported abuses, have fought for more programs to address gender-based violence. And what’s the answer? It sounds like year after year of “be patient” and “boys will be boys.” Not so different from the UN after all.

Well, time is up. The culture in MSF must change. Just as medical professionals know that you must lance a boil in order to allow the infection to drain out and the body to heal, we must lance the festering boil of sexist culture at MSF and allow the suppurating men who prey on women there to drain out so the organization can heal and do its work the way it was meant to be. The idealistic women working in MSF, the idealistic women donating their hard earned money to MSF and the vulnerable women and children in humanitarian zones depending on MSF deserve better than this.

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Classic Cassandra: 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

 

Published in 2016, its time to reshare this Classic Cassandra post.

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.

 

 

Classic Cassandra: Don’t repeat this inaccurate statistic!

https://cassandracomplexblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/16-days-rogue-stats/

This is a repost from Chen’s November 2014 post. Relevant because this INCORRECT statistic is still being used – including on the 16 Days of Action’s official facebook page and shared by over 438 FB users. In today’s age of “post-truth”, we owe it to ourselves and the women and girls we fight for to be accurate in our word choices and data to substantiate our work…

” As someone who works in the field of prevention of and response to sexual violence, I use data to advocate for more attention, more action, more resources and am always on the lookout for statistics that are both persuasive and based on sound methodology.  Every year, advocates and activists around the world time the release of fact sheets, infographics, and reports on violence against women to coincide with the 16 Days of Action. Unfortunately, every year, many of these repeat the following INCORRECT factoid about the impact of violence against women.  “Violence against women causes more death and disability among women aged 15-44 worldwide than cancer, war, malaria and traffic accidents combined.” This factioid, or some version of it, has been repeated in multiple reports including by  influential think-tanks,  in fact sheets and briefing papers produced for the UN  and popular campaigns  and even included in articles by magazines  notorious for rigorous fact checking.

This statement has often been wrongly attributed to the World Health Organization (WHO). When I worked for WHO, we would often send out corrections to those using this factoid, to indicate that it was wrong and that its source is not the WHO and yet the factoid persists. Is this a function of our Wikipedia world where we believe what we read without digging deeper to identify the primary source? Or is it simply that something repeated often enough as truth acquires that reputation?

More importantly, where did this factoid come from?  It likely first appeared in a March 1998 briefing by the Panos Institute. My WHO colleagues and I thought it was probably based on an inaccurate reading of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report published in 1996 or the World Bank’s World Development Report (WDR) in 1993, which includes the GBD data for 1990.  More recently I did a little more digging and I think it is based on a table (table 5) included in a discussion paper “Violence against Women: The Hidden Health Burden” authored by Lori Heise, Jaqueline Pitanguy, and Adrienne Germain for the World Bank in 1994. This paper extrapolates from and builds upon the analysis for the WDR 1993 and estimates that globally among women 15-44, 9.5 million Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) were lost to domestic violence & rape, as compared to 9.0 million for all cancers, 4.2 million for motor vehicle accidents, 2.7 million  for war, and 2.3 million for malaria.  The paper includes an appendix which clarifies the author’s approach to estimating the percentage of DALYs lost to women age 15 to 44 due to conditions that are attributable to domestic violence and rape. The exact methods for estimating these percentages are not specified in the paper but the authors indicate they are on file with World Bank staff.

20 years on, we now have a refined GBD methodology and more recent data from the GBD project, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the 2010 GBD data which are searchable online. In the 2010 report, intimate partner violence (IPV) is included as a risk factor (there are no specific data for rape). The current GBD estimates are that globally about 16.8 million lost DALYs are attributable to IPV as a risk factor for women for all ages.  For women of all ages, 37.8 million DALYs are attributable to Malaria, 80.6 million to cancer, and 20.9 million to transport injuries.

The 2010 GBD estimates are just one source of recent and reliable data on VAW. In 2013 there have been 2 major studies published on VAW. The first, a  report released earlier this year by WHO, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the South African Medical Research Council ,found that  one out of every three women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual  violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. Other key facts from the study: 30% of women worldwide experience violence perpetrated by husbands, boyfriends or other intimate partners and up to 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. A report released by Partners for Prevention earlier this year provided important multi-country comparative data for the Asia- Pacific region on men’s perpetration of violence against women.  We should be using these more recent data as the basis of our advocacy and awareness-raising.

Opponents of work on violence against women accuse anti-VAW activists of spreading misleading and exaggerated information. There are numerous websites aimed at challenging our work to prevent and respond to VAW. One of their key tactics is to highlight erroneous data used by anti-VAW advocates.  When we use data irresponsibly, we provide fodder for those seeking to undermine our work. As consumers and producers of information we have a duty to be responsible. We must examine the primary sources of the statistics we cite and make sure that we are using the most recent and accurate data available.”

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

sunrise
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.