Tag Archives: Violence against women

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.

 

 

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

 

AWiD

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.

Making the International Day to End Violence against Women… all about men?

Stop Violence Today, the 25th of November, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Activists have commemorated the day since 1981 and have used it to raise awareness of the extent and nature of violence against women around the world. The day was officially recognized by the UN in 1999 and it also marks the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign which ends on Dec 10th (International Human Rights Day). The theme this year is “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women!” The 25th of November was chosen because it was on this day in 1960 that three of the four Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, were assassinated on orders of Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo. This day is specifically focused on highlighting the reality of violence against women and advocating to eliminate this violence rather than focusing on gender-based violence. Its clear from recent news stories that violence against women remains a common phenomenon in schools, workplaces, and homes. Violence against women and girls happens in relatively peaceful settings, as well as during natural disasters and in conflict. According to World Health Organization “35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.” The problem is often hidden and unaddressed. Responses to support survivors of violence are insufficient but must be implemented along with prevention as the key to ending violence against women. In this fight to eliminate violence against women, both women and men must be involved. The importance of men and boys as allies in the fight against violence against women is noted in the recently published  Lancet Series on Violence against Women and Girls and at the recent Men Engage Global Symposium. There are both national and international efforts to increase the positive engagement of men and boys in the efforts to end violence against women and girls. HOWEVER, being an ally doesn’t mean shifting the focus away from the problem and instead focusing on men’s role in working to end it.

white ribbon 4
White Ribbon walk in Sydney, Australia 2014

In Australia, the 25th of November is now known as “White Ribbon Day” after a male-led campaign focused on men ending violence against women. By changing the name of the day, the campaign has made the day about men and not about women. In particular it has effectively shifted the focus away from women who experience violence and from violence that is often hidden and unacknowledged. By doing so the campaign renders violence and the women it is perpetuated against invisible. On the one day of the year which is set aside to commemorate and honor women and girls who experience violence – those who survive and those who have not, we must keep the focus on women and girls as a reminder of what we are working towards. We can not end violence against women otherwise.

Policymakers, we need you! ….to pay attention to the evidence.

by Chen Reis

Last week Nicholas Kristof*, the popular NYT columnist, created a storm on twitter and facebook with his column “Professors, We Need You! “ which, among other points, decried the irrelevance of much social science research to policy-making. There have been a number of responses from academics on Twitter, Facebook, and in blogs with many pointing out that they and a significant number of their colleagues are actively working to produce policy relevant research.

Kristof makes some valid points about the obscurity of much social science research and the inaccessibility of the jargon. But he does not mention an important reality:  that even relevant, good quality, and well communicated research often fails to have much impact on public dialog and policy.  Some of the challenges may be inherent to the nature of policy-making itself, but the discrepancy is often seen when research findings do not conform to preconceived notions or agenda of  policymakers. When research demonstrates that pre-existing ’solutions’ are not applicable, it is likely to be ignored as well. This too is true both in the US national system and internationally.  For example, even though  the data suggest that most of the gender-based violence even in humanitarian settings is perpetrated by intimate partners, most of the focus in processes aimed at ending impunity and preventing violence remains on combatant perpetrated sexual violence.

Even in areas for which there is more of an evidence base, it is not clear how and whether the evidence is used. ALNAP, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action, is working to identify the quality and use of evidence available for the humanitarian sector.

The problem is not only that existing evidence is often ignored, but also that there is also little recognition or mention of the need for data on what works, even in key high level statements and commitments. The lack of evidence about what works speaks to not only the complexity of research in crisis settings but also to the lack of resources available for robust program monitoring and evaluation.  When it comes to prevention of and response to sexual violence in conflict, and to evaluation of humanitarian programming in general, it is only fairly recently that there has been a move to identify  evidence of what works. Humanitarian non-governmental organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are working with academic institutions to evaluate interventions for sexual violence in humanitarian settings. There are also initiatives to support the generation of evidence for action, such as the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) initiative of the ELRHA.

It will be interesting to see whether this push for evidence-based action is reflected in the UK hosted Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict scheduled for this June.  I hope that support for building the evidence base and for using the evidence to inform policy and programming plays a greater and more integrated part of the global efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence in humanitarian settings.

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* Kristof’s own work and actions related to sexual violence have been critiqued  as uninformed /naïve and potentially harmful.

Are YOU guilty of Violence Against Women?

cass 4

Despite advances, we still face many structural challenges in the fight against sexual violence. Some of these challenges are external – the persistent attitudes and beliefs that women are somehow to blame for rape or questioning of the veracity of women who come forward to report sexual abuse. Some of the challenges relate to the different approaches to preventing and responding to sexual violence.

Those of us who work to end acts of violence against women, often neglect to consider how we as advocates, practitioners, and academics may also be enacting more subtle forms of violence against survivors and colleagues through our words and actions.

Perhaps one of the most visible examples of GBV activists contributing to the problem is related to Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising Campaign (OBR).  Critics  say that OBR both appropriates and negates the experiences of women of color and others.  Critics argue that “white savior” feminists recreate colonialist attitudes and fail to treat sexual violence survivors “in the field” with humanity – seeing them as a ‘scientific object to study’ rather than as a fellow human being in need. These critiques and responses to them have been discussed in detail and merit consideration for what they can teach us about the importance of inclusive mass action. But there are other – more subtle – ways in which we, in the GBV world, as individuals and as part of a larger movement may be contributing to the problem . What follows is a list of some of the more common ones that many women in our field have faced.

  • We mistreat those who work for us and with us and by doing so, we enable those who seek to dismiss our work.  It is telling that in the recent incident in which an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was charged with making false statements and committing visa fraud in relation to a domestic worker she hired, the headlines  made much of her being a women’s rights advocate who treated a woman in her employ abusively . Those of us who have worked in the field can probably recall several incidents of mistreatment of junior staff by (female) managers, of local staff by expatriates and of domestic abuse by those in the humanitarian sector.  These may not get the media attention that the Khobragade case has, and they may be ignored by organizations, but they do not go unnoticed. How many have heard co-workers admit that they hate working for female managers because they treat their staff so poorly or experienced such poor treatment?
  • In a complex and multidisciplinary field that is chronically stressed due to competition for funds, overwork, and the “tyranny of the urgent”, it is to be expected that there will be disagreements. Our work is political and we become political when we engage in it. However, when we, as GBV practitioners, speak negatively about or attack the character and qualifications of colleagues with whom we disagree, we undermine them, but also ourselves, our work, and the women we are fighting for.
  • Infighting within and between organizations benefits only those who want to diminish the impact of work to end and address violence against women. When we create division, opposition and competition between sectors or organizational approaches instead of seeking opportunities for collaboration we do irreparable harm to the field of Gender-based Violence prevention and response and ultimately to those we claim to be working for survivors of sexual violence in humanitarian settings.

As we strive to create a world free of violence against women and increase access of survivors to services and opportunities for justice we must also consider the means by which we do so.

Let us know what you think in the comments below or on twitter #WakeupVAW

The Conflict-Related GBV that the Humanitarian Community Ignores

by Sarah Martin

In humanitarian settings, there’s been greater attention paid to the issue of sexual violence in conflict thanks to the work of GBV activists around the world. There are more programs, more media and academic attention about the problem, and even an acronym (CRSV = Conflict Related Sexual Violence) created to allow us to refer to it in short-hand on power-point presentations. While, we still struggle to implement programs and get sufficient funding (CARE International UK released a report showing that only 3% of the U.S.’s humanitarian aid is spent on programs that focus on gender, including GBV) and GBV sub-cluster leads must still argue with other agency leads that GBV falls under CERF criteria for life-saving, progress has been made in acknowledging sexual violence in emergencies.

Rape is a horrifying fact of war for most people around the world. Yet women in non-conflict countries also experience sexual violence and not always at the hands of parties to the conflict. The latest data show that some 1 in 3 women globally experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. Thirty percent 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. Although Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has been documented in humanitarian settings including refugee camps for over 10 years, IPV is rarely addressed in humanitarian response. Dr. Jhumka Gupta, a social epidemiologist and assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health, asks the question in today’s Huffington Post, “Why then are such private forms of violence against women largely an afterthought in settings impacted by humanitarian crises?”

Dr Gupta raises good questions – leading with a strong personal anecdote about a woman in Haiti during the coup against Aristide (pre-Earthquake) who wandered into the hospital she worked in with stab wounds from her husband. There were no services to refer her to and

“as a women’s health professional, all I could do was buy her food and see her in the hospital every day until she healed—at least from her physical wounds.”

Despite the assistance available during humanitarian emergencies (mental health, health care, shelter, protection and other programs), there continues to be a blind spot with regards to humanitarian attention to IPV.

Her anecdote reflects my personal experiences working for Medecins Sans Frontieres- Holland as an advisor on responding to sexual violence in the headquarters. MSF is known for working in the difficult places. They are known for drawing attention to neglected diseases and taking up issues that are ignored in humanitarian settings.  But when it came to arguing that MSF should pay more attention to IPV, I normally hit a wall. I often debated with conflicted team members in the field whether or not MSF should be treating domestic violence cases or trying to assist women who had been assaulted by their husbands. While I could normally get them to agree that it didn’t matter who the perpetrator was – that healthcare was needed and should be offered, I was not always very successful (particularly with non-medical personnel). I always ran up against the “culture” argument that IPV is “a cultural issue and we shouldn’t touch it” (although I had allies in operations including those who fought hard to open up Family Service Centers in Lae and Tari and now Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea that provide comprehensive services for IPV survivors.)

A review of published research  by Stark and Ager looked at studies conducted in conflict affected settings like Bosnia, East Timor, and refugee camps in Jordan and concluded that “rates of intimate partner violence tended to be quite high across all of the studies—much higher than most of the rates of wartime rape and sexual violence perpetrated by individuals outside of the home.”  Gupta points out that the International Rescue Committee released a report calling for the humanitarian community to consider intimate partner violence as a humanitarian issue in West Africa in 2012, and questions whether it is not addressed because it fails to capture the media’s attention. At the Cassandra Complexity, we also wonder why its not addressed with as much fervor as conflict-related sexual violence perpetrated by combatants (see the recent high level meetings hosted by the US Institute of Peace’s including one focused on “Men, Peace and Security”, a number of UN Security Council Resolutions specifically regarding sexual violence in conflict (as it relates to peace and security) and the UN Action against Sexual Violence initiative ). Stay tuned for more thoughts from the Cassandra Complexity community on this.

Ignoring IPV doesn’t make sense in humanitarian settings. The physical, emotional, social, and economic costs of IPV are staggering. Gupta points out:

“According to the World Bank, the economic costs of lost productivity due to partner violence are estimated to be around 1.2-2% of GDP. This is close to what the Democratic Republic of Congo spends on education. These health and economic tolls can threaten any chances of stability long after wars end.”

She also references a partnership with the International Rescue Committee and Innovations for Poverty Action in Côte d’Ivoire that shows how the humanitarian community can start to address this issue.  Her project observed reductions in IPV when combining women’s economic empowerment with a program that engaged men to challenge traditional gender norms. Gupta’s article calls for more US leadership on addressing this issue, but I believe that humanitarian organizations should take a lead in addressing this more concretely by speaking out about the impact of IPV on the clients, beneficiaries, and patients that they work with in conflict and humanitarian emergencies world wide. We have to stop using the culture argument to turn a blind eye to the suffering in the communities where we work.

Call for Proposals for UN Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women

The United Nations Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women is accepting applications for its 18th grant cycle (2013) from civil society organizations and networks — including non-governmental, women’s and community-based organizations and coalitions, and operational research institutions — government authorities, and UN Country Teams (in partnership with governments and civil society organizations).

Applicants are invited to submit grant proposals for a minimum of US$50,000 up to a maximum of US$1 million for a period of two to three years. The application deadline is 22 January 2014.

The complete Call for Proposals detailing criteria, eligibility requirements and application guidelines is available at: http://grants.unwomen.org/