Author Archives: Cassandra

About Cassandra

Questioning, thinking, writing, and talking about gender-based violence

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!

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.”

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 :

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

16 Days: Women risking their lives to defend the rights of women



November 29th was dedicated to the Feminist and Women Human Rights Defenders in recognition of the brave women from all walks of life who risk their lives to exercise and defend their human rights and the rights of others.

They are feminists, activists, lawyers, judges, teachers, social workers, community leaders, mothers, sisters – who have taken a stand against violence and discrimination against women, and the broader community.

They are the women who scream for justice, shout at injustice, ask hard questions, demand answers, and stand up against governments, institutions, and powerful individuals and groups.

The tribute was first launched at Association of Women In Development’s 12th International Forum on Women’s Rights in Development, held in April 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. The new version of the tribute takes the form of an online photo exhibition launched on November 25th, Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and ends on December 10, International Human Rights Day with a special slide show featuring 16 WHRDs from around the world. The tribute features photographs and biographies of women’s rights leaders from around the world.

This online exhibition, courtesy of  is a tribute to these human rights defenders that have passed away – a third of these women were assassinated or disappeared, proving the extreme risks for those working in promoting human rights and challenging the status quo.

On this day, we also give thanks and admiration to the amazing women human rights defenders we know, including amazing humanitarian colleagues who often work in very difficult environments – disasters, war and conflict, displacement, and at times in countries and organisations that don’t understand the need for women’s rights, or with systems and colleagues who question why we need to care about the women and girls.

Our work is fraught with resistance.

New Report: The Continuity of Risk: A three-city study of Congolese women-at-risk resettled in the U.S

The summary below was contributed by Karin Wachter, one of the report’s co-authors

In October 2014, the University of Texas at Austin and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University issued their report: The Continuity of Risk: A three-city study of Congolese women-at-risk resettled in the U.S. The study was conducted to prepare for the 50,000 Congolese refugees planned to be resettled in the United States over the next several years through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

The Continuity of Risk concludes that Congolese refugee women have a sense of safety and food security in the U.S., and struggle with integration. The primary concerns expressed by the research participants include the impacts of trauma, social isolation, loss of power as mothers and precarious financial survival. The UNHCR “woman-at-risk” resettlement category is also discussed from both practice and policy perspectives.

The findings highlight women’s intersecting experiences with violence and forced migration.  The recommendations section of the report, in particular, emphasizes the potential for collaboration between resettlement and domestic violence and sexual assault agencies to help meet those expressed needs.  This study can help to inform those collaborative efforts already underway and spark ideas for new initiatives and partnerships.

The report can be downloaded from the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) website at: