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.
“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.comThe 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 instabilityIf 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.”
- 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).
I am a feminist and I try to live my life by the principles of sisterhood, solidarity, peace, and non violence. My work focuses on gender-based violence and the vast majority of my colleagues consider themselves to be feminists as well. To my great surprise and dismay, I was recently a target of trashing by colleagues. And to my even greater dismay, it turns out that this is a common problem in our community. That is absolutely unacceptable.
What is trashing, you ask? Feminist scholar and author Jo Freeman identified it in her 1976 essay:
What is “trashing,” this colloquial term that expresses so much, yet explains so little? It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy….
Whatever methods are used, trashing involves a violation of one’s integrity, a declaration of one’s worthlessness, and an impugning of one’s motives. In effect, what is attacked is not one’s actions, or one’s ideas, but one’s self…. [emphasis added]
My recent experiences involved two different kinds of trashing behavior: the quiet behind the back bad-mouthing and the in-your-face verbal abuse.
In the first incident, a colleague used quiet undermining and back-biting to cast aspersions on my professional knowledge and abilities while acting supportive, collegial, and even friendly to me directly. This put my reputation at risk in some circles, and was particularly hurtful as people I felt that I knew and trusted stood by silently without defending me. I understand that trashing says more about the trasher’s insecurities than anything about the trashee. Nevertheless, it’s harmful.
The other experience involved several incidents of verbal abuse, yelling, and bullying in work meetings in front of other colleagues. I was frequently the target of this abusive behavior, but I was not the only target. It’s horrifying to experience it or watch it happening regardless of who is the target. It was frightening and appalling, even more so because this individual is in a position of power and is known to be abusive in professional spheres.
To my great joy, both incidents resulted in many of my close colleagues gathering around me and declaring their trust in both me and my capabilities. They reminded me of an elephant family – mature females who surround their vulnerable herd-mate to comfort and defend against the enemy – be it human poacher or hungry lions. My elephant family of sisters surround me, care for me, protect me, and are brave for me in those moments when I can’t find words to defend myself and when I feel afraid that I can’t be brave enough. My elephant family neutralizes any harm that may befall me or my reputation. For that I will be forever grateful.
At the time all this was occurring, I posted a vague declaration of experiencing workplace abuse on my personal Facebook. It was, with my fear of social media’s long and unceasing reach, uncharacteristically personal and vulnerable. I was delighted and overwhelmed with the positive response from my friends and acquaintances. So many messages of support, many messages disclosing similar experiences, and a universal message that trashing happens far too much in the gender and gender-based violence fields of work and we have to stand up against it.
I know that my experiences are far too common in our community. And that’s why I decided to write this. I think that the problem is big enough that rather than just circling the vulnerable to protect them, we need to address this problem out loud and discuss solutions.
So, what do we do when this trashing happens? Stand helplessly in uncomfortable and powerless silence? How can we stand up against trashing? The elephant family is filled with strong females who bond together to defend against the enemy but they are still vulnerable to the threat from within. As Jo Freeman pointed out, trashing occurs in a variety of ways and can be direct, indirect, and just plain smarmy and insidious. What should one do to counteract it? Do you call out that sneaky undermining gossipy stuff when you hear it – refuse to participate in it even though it may leave you outside of a group in control? Do you speak up in opposition to trashing when it occurs, wherever it occurs, damn the consequences? Do you rush in to surround your vulnerable elephant sister and protect her (literally or figuratively)?
It seems to me that there is room in this work for everyone. We have so much to do if we want real gender equality, and we need all hands and hearts and minds. So what’s the point in trying to push some of our sisters away when we need them so badly?
Just a couple of years ago, Jill Filipovic posed the question, “Is sisterhood sacred or soul-crushing?” Her answer, in part:
Within the feminist movement, the answer is less clear than one might hope. Trashing each other and exclusion have been hallmarks since the movement began, and each generation of feminist activists seems to suffer the same in-fighting. But contrary to simplistic ideas about catty, back-stabbing women, feminists don’t fight each other because women are uniquely competitive or cruel. Though we care about the movement, it happens because we’ve internalized a narrative of scarcity: we act as though we’re fighting for crumbs. [emphasis added]
Is that what this is all about? That we’re fighting each other for crumbs of credibility and respect? That we put others down so that we can feel better in a collectively internalized narrative of scarcity? A race to the bottom where we fight like starving rats over crumbs? If that is the case, then let’s change that narrative right here and right now.
How can we keep our sisterhood sacred? How can we stand shoulder to shoulder against those who wish us harm, especially if they are inside our elephant family?
What can we do as a community to restore sacred sisterhood and stand up to trashing?
Please leave us your thoughts and ideas in the comments sections below or on our FB page, Twitter page or by email at CassandraComplexityBlog@gmail.com.
Recently the Guardian decided to publish an article about the sex lives of Humanitarian Aid workers written by Pauline Oosterhoff and Elise Wach of International Development Studies department at the University of Sussex in the UK.
The authors start with a sexy scenario, which in this instance actually means sexy. They wanted to explore the complexities of having a sex life when working as a humanitarian aid worker. At first, they complained about coworkers in the field watching porn on the shared TV and the logistical and security problems of getting your boss to sign off on a sexual relationship with a staff member of another agency. The authors stated “paid sex with local sex workers avoids some of these issues, but clearly poses others.” They then go on to ‘helpfully’ tell the readers
“in many countries, bars and discos have rooms available to rent for a short stay and are usually considered brothels by the local population. Making decisions on the best way for staff to visit brothels is a familiar dilemma for some humanitarian logistics managers. While providing the organisation’s car ensures the driver is likely to get humanitarians home safely, having its logo on a jeep outside a brothel is hardly ideal for the organisation’s reputation.”
Upon reading this, many of us at Cassandra and in the GBV community were saddened and shocked. The comments section on the Guardian website and chatter on Facebook showed us that we were not alone. The authors are blithely promoting something that has been a real problem in the humanitarian world – sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian aid workers and by UN peacekeepers.
The authors seem to have completely ignored the work that has been going on since 2002 to address the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse (a form of gender-based violence) BY humanitarian aid workers and missed an opportunity to raise awareness and promote this work and have possibly undermined it. It was disturbing for us to see an institution such as IDS not even mention the power dynamics involved while suggesting that the completely unethical behavior of having sex with locals is a legitimate “option”. Several of us responded with the following piece which can be found on the Guardian website. The Guardian’s editors took out some of our points so here’s the full response as submitted.
“We, the authors, all work on preventing and responding to sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies and have for decades. Your recent article caught our attention because it raised a very dangerous ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of humanitarian workers having a sex life while in the field. We are extremely disturbed by the author’s suggestion that humanitarian workers and peacekeepers pay for sex and, more so, that the authors believe that this is an issue that is open for discussion. It is simply not true. Their article is not well informed and ignores a key principle within the humanitarian system that prohibits sexual exploitation and abuse of our beneficiaries.
The 2003 United Nations Secretary General’s bulletin on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse explicitly prohibits humanitarians from exchanging money, goods or services for sex. Every international organization that receives funding from the UN, United States or European donors must abide by these requirements, including mandatory reporting against any suspected violation. While there may be logistics officers and drivers who take coworkers to brothels, they should be reported for doing so and they and their brothel-visiting coworkers should be investigated and fired.
Humanitarians are human beings who have sexual relations while deployed – this is true. We all know couples that have developed relationships with other humanitarians but this is not a given. Many also understand that a lack of appropriate partners means that one must postpone this aspect of their life until R&R or return home. Sexual relationships with local staff and people affected by the crisis involve significant power dynamics and call into question the idea of “consent”.
Aside from being prohibited by our codes of conduct, for the authors to suggest that visiting local sex workers is an acceptable solution to sexual frustration while deployed is unethical. The Guardian article’s comments section recounts some horrifying stories of what happens when these power dynamics are ignored and abused. The heart of these policies is to ensure protection of vulnerable populations (not merely to protect our own organizational reputations). Organizations still struggle to implement these policies. Articles like this piece may strive to start a conversation about sex but have missed an opportunity to inform about why we need to protect affected populations from those who can’t control their sex drives. Ms. Oosterhoff and Wach‘s lack of understanding about the harm of sexual abuse and exploitation—and failure to reference the code of conduct—is simply dangerous – especially for the vulnerable men, women, boys, and girls that we seek to assist.”
Chen, Micah, Beth, and I have all been working on preventing and responding to sexual violence in humanitarian and development settings for nearly a combined 65 years (!!). We know that it is rare to see our issues in the mainstream press so we relish these kinds of opportunities to educate people about these very complex issues. It was also good to see others working on the same issues as us take the time (that we often are unable to find) to raise these issues in a widely read and respected newspaper and website. It was therefore particularly shocking to see that the IDS authors completely missed the point.
Not mentioning the codes of conduct from the piece immediately leads knowledgeable readers to call into question the author’s understanding of the topic of sexual activity by aid workers. It undermined any point that the author might be trying to make, for example that codes of conduct are failing, irrelevant, or a band aid solution (all of which would be an interesting addition to the subject).
Regarding the authors’ point about the “awkwardness” of reporting a sexual relationship with colleagues, this raises a valuable point about how difficult it is to get people to report sexual harassment or concern that others are breaking the code of Conduct due to fear of no organizational follow-up or negative repercussions (see the movie the Whistleblower which highlights the work of a great gender activist, Madeleine Rees.) Policies are in place but implementing them is harder. While larger agencies such as UNHCR can hire people to travel to the field to engage in discussions about codes of conduct (which reach beyond just the sex lives of their staff) and building capacity to address the issues, it appears to be the smaller agencies that struggle with reporting and screening staff. Child protection agencies in particular are aware of the problem – how to protect vulnerable children from pedophiles.
I don’t think people are pretending its not happening…. there have been activists working on this issue for years. Nor is it a case of agencies “preferring a policy to make it a fireable offense” – it’s about implementing codes of conduct that are tied to their human resources policies and their funding. It’s also about making it unacceptable behavior and changing the attitudes that put an aid worker’s sexual fulfillment over the right of a person from a crisis affected setting to live a life of dignity.
As humanitarian aid workers, we are supposed to be saving lives and alleviating suffering. We should not be contributing to the pain and suffering of the people that we have come there to support.
For more discussion on the topic of paid sex work and humanitarians, stay tuned for Part 2: Desperate Sex and other Exploitative Measures.
This is a personal reflection by Sarah Martin about the ESVC Summit in June 2013. Thoughts expressed are only my own.
While I have mostly worked on the “response” end of gender-based violence, first as an advocate with Refugees International, then as an advisor with MSF, and now as a consultant with NGOs and the UN, I have always been drawn to work on prevention and intrigued about working with militaries and police*. I joined the United Kingdom government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative team after a call for “experts” in October 2012 and in March 2013, I was deployed as one of the first teams and joined five other “experts” to go to Libya to investigate sexual violence in the conflict. The trip itself was intense and very interesting as I was deployed with two lawyers, a policeman, and a psychologist and we met with a wide variety of government officials and civil society activists. Working with the legal and police side opened my eyes to their perspective on how they interact with survivors and documenting sexual violence as a crime.
When I deployed to Libya with PSVI, it seemed to me that DFiD and the Foreign Office weren’t really in step as we didn’t even meet with DFiD in London or Tripoli. But since then, DFiD has been taking a keen interest in VAWG (rhymes with ‘fog’ according to them) and so, I was interested to go to this summit to see how the UK had integrated their preventing sexual violence work with their responding to survivors work. It still seems that we have a long way to go – Foreign Minister Hague’s zealous pursuit of an international law solution, while important, seems to be outweighing the very real needs of survivors who, in my experience, ask for income generation and livelihood programs as well as healthcare and psychosocial support. Generally, they have very little faith that their corrupt legal systems and police forces will ever protect them or serve up justice.
On the first day, there was an undeniable buzz in the air – it felt like coming to a rock show or a “moment in history.” As I registered for the conference, I saw some familiar faces from the gender-based violence in emergencies work (including Jeanne Ward, Heidi Lehmann, Chen Reis, Erin Kenney, Mendy Marsh, Shanna Swiss, Claudia Garcia Moreno, Lizle Loots and others who have been fighting for this issue for years now) but mostly it was people and organizations I had never seen in my humanitarian work.
On the panels listed in my agenda, there were very few people who actually do the work of talking to and supporting survivors. There were high level UN agency heads and big “names” and it was heavily heavily weighted to discussion on legal action (arguably the least effective and least in demand of our ‘multi-sectoral response’ for survivors).
I did attend one very good panel on data collection but the real issues that plague us in the field (how do you maintain neutrality and other humanitarian principles while working with survivors if you have mandatory reporting to governments or the security council or how do we deal with overzealous human rights data collection folks when trying to provide some physical and mental health support to traumatized survivors) were a drop in the bucket compared to the discussions that the human rights and service providers need to have with each other. It felt like a missed opportunity to bring the legal and medical sides together over the contentious issue of data collection.
Because many of the panels I wanted to see were held at the same time, I wasn’t able to make it down to the Fringe events. I have to admit, I also felt slightly put off by the name. To me – a “fringe” event means something alternative, not mainstream, something “avant-garde” or experimental and related closely to theatre and arts – The Edinburgh Fringe Festival springs to mind. It annoyed me that the NGOs and women’s activists were not at the main summit but relegated to the Fringe. There was a “marketplace” and theatre and photo exhibits – all things that I like but because they had been labeled “fringe” and were “open to the public” – they seemed to be not the point of the Summit. (This turned out to be a bad decision on my part that I regretted later.)
I had scored a “Delegate” pass due to my work for PSVI and I wanted to be up with the “decision-makers” to see what was going on. The agenda for the delegates sessions was a closely guarded secret (or so it seemed seeing how many people I had to contact to get a version of it) and security was tight – many phalanxes of G4S security guards scanning our chests for the color coded ribbons that held my coveted “delegate” badge so I felt that I had better focus my time there.
That first night, I went to a private reception with the policemen, lawyers, and psychologists on the UK team of experts where we got to meet Angelina Jolie and William Hague in person. Drinks were plentiful, food was not, and some of our colleague’s work in Bosnia, Syria, and Mali was highlighted by name but our Libya team was sad to not be recognized – also none of these “team of experts” had been on any panels at all at this Expert summit. Angelina was gracious and beautiful – we were all shy but interested in talking to her and she was surrounded by a group of admirers the whole time.
On Day 2, I noted in my facebook status update that I was
“starting to get disillusioned – If you are a person concerned about men and boys not being included in GBV work, it worked – I almost feel like we’re now more concerned about male survivors of violence than women nowadays – at least that’s what the rhetoric sounds like. But will these commitments mean much? We’ll see – can the UN and NGOs keep reminding them to make a strong commitment to funding survivors services and training police and judiciary? Not sure. Will it make a difference to CAP and Humanitarian funding? Or will everyone just publish more glossy books and force us to collect more data and keep hassling survivors to tell their story in a setting of no justice and retribution?”
A rather glum take on it.
Perhaps it was influenced by the fact that I started the day off incredibly late for a meeting due to the security to get into the event and then sneaking into the VIP section of the summit sitting in the many empty seats reserved for UN and foreign dignitaries behind Angelina Jolie’s place. The paparazzi was ushered in to take photos of her and she was one of the few women sitting in the VIP section (besides me and my other “illegal colleagues”). I was blown away by Leymah Gbowee’s speech and she got more cheers than Angelina did. The speeches went downhill after the male ministers started coming up to stage to talk about this issue that they had just discovered. Maybe I’m being unfair to them but the only ministerial speech that resonated with me was when Jordan’s minister went off script and talked about religion. I’ve always admired Jordan’s commitment to peace and GBV since i worked with Queen Noor on the board with Refugees International and Prince Zeid on his comprehensive strategy to eliminate future sexual exploitation and abuse in United Nations Peacekeeping operations, known as the Zeid Report,
I had an uptick in my positive energy when I spotted Lt. General Romeo Dallaire, a man I admire who once told me to “keep fighting – working on prevention of sexual violence by UN peacekeepers is really important!”*
The number of men tripled at the conference on the second day because this was the day for all the ministers. Why are all the GBV activists women and all the people in power men? Again on Facebook, I noted
“Maybe if we had a few more women in power, we wouldn’t need so many women activists.”
My low point came when I sat listening to the ministers from Afghanistan and South Sudan talk about the work their government was doing to protect GBV survivors – work that has been completely invisible to me when I visited their countries to work on gender-based violence response.
That day on twitter, I noted
“Its not helping on Twitter that some gun nuts have started tweeting under “#timetoact that what women need to protect themselves from rape in conflict is more guns and ammo.”
I was still reeling from the awful murders in Santa Barbara and the misogyny of the killer and the #notallmen and #yesallwomen debates. Soon the whole world will be shooting each other! Things were feeling rather desperate.
So I decided to take a trip down to the Fringe. I immediately felt a bit better – down in NGO activism world again watching Womankind Worldwide, Amnesty International and Oxfam and IRC telling us what the “women, peace, and security” agenda SHOULD mean. More lively – more doers, less talkers. That’s where I saw all my GBV colleagues that night as we gathered around a plate of leftover chocolate candies and discussed the summit. There were African women, Asian women, Latin American women and European and North American women of all ages and shapes and sizes down in the Fringe. There were men wearing buttons proclaiming themselves allies. There were earnest university students participating in a “hackathon” and young people job-hunting with idealistic excitement clinging to them. Protestors from Bangladesh posed for photos with tape across their mouth outside the Fringe opening – asylum seekers who were also rape survivors being forced out of the UK even though rape was rampant in the conflicts in their country were also present lobbying and talking about the problem in their country. Angelina Jolie also seemed to be happier down in the Fringe and dragged Brad Pitt around to visit all the exhibits and buy a copy of the Vagina Monologues.
So I sat in the final event of my summit listening to an activist from Nepal and an activist from Liberia talk. An amazing expert from IRC was talking about training and support. I felt overwhelmed with emotion. These were the women that inspire me and keep me going. They were tough talking, funny, and telling their truth. I mentioned my concerns about Legal-Medical issues. A Ph.D. student found me as I left the Fringe and we exchanged information as she wants to know more about the reality of offering medical certificates to rape survivors in places like Somalia, DRC, and Myanmar and how it impacts the service providers and what it does for women. I perked up. Maybe something solid was going to come out of this summit after all. And I left during the London sunset and headed off to my next gig – teaching 31 Saudi men and 2 women about gender and disaster response – feeling a bit better than I had the previous day.
*In 2005, while at Refugees International, 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“. I haven’t worked on that issue in almost 10 years but I still get emails from time to time about people interested in the issue. Right before the summit, I was contacted to see if I wanted to speak on the issue. I declined as I’m not current on these issues but I did decide to go to the sessions on peacekeeping at the Summit. I was sad to see that not much has changed in 10 years and no concrete solutions seem to be in place. Very very sad.