Tag Archives: Women

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

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

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

The Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life at MSF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Awakening

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

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

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

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

The Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time’s Up

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

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

Reflecting on healing ourselves

One of the issues I feel strongly about is supporting other women and men who work in the field of gender-based violence in emergencies. I went through a burn out in 2010 while working at MSF Holland as the sexual violence adviser and humanitarian affairs specialist.  It kicked in during a GBV sub-cluster meeting after the Haiti earthquake when the burden of what I was seeing, combined with the grief from losing my father, and the insanity that is working in humanitarian organizations combined in a toxic way (I think my dear Lina Abirafeh was chairing that meeting – it was nothing personal! You’re a fine coordinator!)
I was lucky. MSF provided support on psycho-social issues for staff and the Dutch government gives paid sick leave to recover from burn-out. I got psychological support from a great therapist paid for by my health insurance and picked out by MSF. I saw a “work doctor” once a month who said “sleep, ride your bike, go see art, spend as much time outside as you can and whatever you do, don’t check work emails or talk about work.”
After six long months were I alternately cried and slept a lot and then started taking my doctor’s advice – I started to heal. But I never was really the same again. I like the Japanese idea of kintsukuroi to think about those broken places and how its changed me.
I’ve been talking and thinking about this issue a lot and so have other people. So I was excited to get this email from Leora Ward – someone I’ve known in the GBV in Emergency field for a long time. It’s an amazing new venture and I’m signing up. I hope you’ll consider it too.
From Leora:
“I wanted to share with you my newest creation and passion- a weekend retreat for women in our line of work- so that you might consider coming and/ or sharing this information with other women in your network. My hope is to work with and welcome humanitarian workers and service providers who may benefit from my support. This retreat is just one of those ways and also a very exciting entry point!
You may know that I started a business, Healing in Service, in the last few months to support women in the humanitarian field to better prioritize themselves; shift their lives towards abundance, connection, and energy; and create a movement of people who serve others with inner peace and joy. You can find more information about the work and get a feel for what I am hoping to achieve at www.healinginservice.com
The bottom line, is that I work with women who are serving in important ways but are also looking to move beyond their work to integrate different parts of their lives, personally and professionally, and are wanting more skills to live in gratitude alongside their desire, pleasure, and deepest longing in the outside world. 
I want to support these women to:
– Gain clarity about their immediate needs and values
– Check-in with their bodies and their stories in the present moment
– Heal and recover from past experiences that are still with them
– Determine ways to nurture, love, and be good to themselves
– Move gracefully through transition and periods of instability
If you know women who may resonate with this work or message and are looking for some additional resources in their lives, whom you think might be interested in this retreat, and who are ready for making the choices that will bring them to deeper alignment with their passion, needs, and values- it would be great to know more about them. I am really eager to find women who want to join me along this path.”

Please  feel free to share this with others and contact Leora through her website or her facebook page to get more information.

 2016 can be the year when we realize capacity means more than just training but we have to look at ourselves holistically.

The Sacred Sisterhood and My Elephant Family


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.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Our work is fraught with resistance.

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.


* 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?

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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

Welcome to the Cassandra Complexity

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[1] 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

[1] Variously labelled the Cassandra ‘syndrome’, ‘complex’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘predicament’, ‘dilemma’, or ‘curse’. Definition here is adapted from http://cassandrasyndrome.blogspot.com