“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
- In humanitarian settings, international organizations have treated the context as a tabula rasa and applied “one size fits all” solutions to the problem instead of engaging local women’s groups and learning about and from what is already in place and can work. The international community often physically, financially or linguistically excludes local colleagues and partners from meetings and decision-making processes. Regardless of whether this is deliberate or inadvertent, this approach wastes resources, has little chance of making a positive long term impact and misses crucial opportunities to (re) build systems to help survivors who will need long term re-integration and support.
- 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.
This is a place for independent ideas, opinions, views, and discussions related to gender-based violence (GBV) – and especially sexual violence – in populations affected by humanitarian crises. We are a global online forum for practitioners, advocates, and researchers. We aim to look a little further and probe a little deeper than other sites that are focused on technical support, advocacy, or research.
The name of this blog reflects the Cassandra metaphor and its relationship to the complexity of the issues surrounding gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts.
The Cassandra metaphor is a term applied in situations in which valid warnings or concerns are dismissed or disbelieved. The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. After a series of events and catastrophes, Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events, but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions. We who work on gender-based violence have experienced Cassandra’s dilemma over and over again.
As practitioners, advocates and researchers, we have also been dissatisfied by a lack of space for open, honest, and independent discussion among people working on these issues from diverse organizations or professional perspectives. As there has been increased international attention to the issues of GBV in humanitarian settings, there has also been a silencing of divergent voices and a notable lack of interdisciplinary discussion. We therefore started this blog to fill this gap and enable the sharing of views and debates that have no other forum for publication.
We are most interested in focusing on violence against women and girls in humanitarian contexts, but we will not exclude postings about GBV against men or boys.
We want your contributions and hope this blog will become a lively place for sharing and discussion of views that we cannot easily find in other places. Jargon-free and humorous writing will be most welcome. Contributors are free to post under their own name or, if they wish, to maintain anonymity by posting under the pseudonym Cassandra. As the gender-based violence world is small, we wish to offer opportunities for publishing opinions anonymously. This will allow freedom to express unpopular opinions or critique institutions without fear of being censored or blacklisted in the community.
We want to move past institutional views and professional silos and hope that you will join us.
Sarah Martin Chen Reis Beth Vann