Interview: Christine Persaud on Gender and NGO Security
I appreciate you taking the time to chat, Christine.
Thank you for the invitation. Before we get started though, I'd like to reference two definitions from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee's (IASC) Gender Handbook.
Gender refers to the social differences between females and males throughout the life cycle that are learned, and though deeply rooted in every culture, are changeable over time, and have wide variations both within and between cultures. "Gender," along with class and race, determines the roles, power and resources for females and males in any culture.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between females and males. The nature and extent of specific types of GBV vary across cultures, countries and regions. Examples include sexual violence, including sexual exploitation/abuse and forced prostitution; domestic violence; trafficking; forced/early marriage; harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation; honour killings; and widow inheritance.
That's good for level setting, thanks. So my first question is, as a female, what have your biggest challenges been in performing NGO security work?
Safety and security work, NGO or otherwise, remains mostly a male-dominated field — usually because of the gender roles perceived to be associated with security management. This sometimes creates, as you may imagine, gender-related challenges. Some individuals see females as weaker and as an easier target for criticism of their work and recommendations. These same individuals tend to second-guess women, regardless of their skills and experience. This is difficult because right away, there is a sense that a woman must prove something to validate herself and gain acceptance as a female safety and security advisor.
Since there are more male security workers than females, I am sometimes greeted with skepticism by field staff (men and women both). On these occasions it takes effort to have others recognize who I am. Usually, once they get to know me, they open up and become incredibly receptive and realize I am fully competent to do the job. But, I should never feel the pressure of having to prove myself in the first place.
Of course sometimes cultural nuances are present and there are certain situations that are considered off limits for a female security advisor. I try to recognize this ahead of time and work accordingly. I never want to cause harm because of my presence.
While I don't want to stereotype, what differences do you see in how female humanitarian security practitioners do their jobs compared to their male counterparts?
There aren't many female security practitioners like myself who deploy to conduct security assessments. You will more often find women as security desk officers, researchers or trainers. There is a role and importance for all. Women who perform security in the field such as Beverly Aisha Toomer, have really worked hard and devoted themselves to the job and have assumed incredible roles in security management. I really appreciate their approach, experience and commitment.
As for the differences between male and female approaches, I can only speak for myself and say that in theory, there shouldn’t be too much difference. The notion of cultivating acceptance and interfacing/connecting with various actors is very important to me. I think being a female has enabled me to have more access to the most vulnerable groups — humanitarian personnel and beneficiaries. I also don't want to stereotype but I do wonder if women use more intuition, discussion and consultation — although I have some male colleagues who are very sensitive and intuitive.
Gender is often overlooked in humanitarian organization security practices. Could you explain why we need to be more aware of gender when it comes to security planning?
Gender can make individuals further vulnerable and it must be considered in security planning. Gender Based Violence is pervasive all over the world in all cultures and societies. Some types of programming could and do cause greater harm to vulnerable staff and beneficiaries in situations where they are put at risk. In humanitarian organization security, this point is often not well considered and gender barriers to reporting and acknowledging increased risk exposure may be pushed away because of fear.
It is also important to understand and accept the cultural and religious gender issues that are imperative to each individual staff member. For example, there was a situation in Darfur, where a female Muslim national staff was made to share a house with male staff at a field office location. This woman was not from the area, and living with male personnel brought shame and insecurity in the eyes of the community and to herself. The organization's Country Director had complete disregard for the situation and in planning to better accommodate the needs of many of its national female staff; including providing better security systems at residences. In this case budget took precedence over fundamental respect for religious cultural and gender roles. Another area of concern includes the dynamics of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by aid workers against beneficiaries and often by international male staff members upon national female staff.
We must consider the fact that staff members are from all over the world and each has their own notion of gender roles. This variation in even basic comprehension of what constitutes Gender Based Violence (GBV) can seriously exacerbate situations and sensitivities.
I recall doing an office evacuation drill once where the women's traditional clothing really impacted their ability to quickly exit the building. I'm embarrassed to say, it didn't even occur to me that would be an issue. Have you had any security experiences where something gender-specific surprised you?
I remember a case in Sri Lanka where an NGO’s female staff members were being sexually harassed every time they passed an SLA checkpoint. This harassment was even worse when they were driving motorbikes. Getting around in motorbikes was the primary transportation means for this NGO. Unfortunately, none of female staff had communicated they were being subjected to daily harassment and sometimes even assault. I was surprised and fortunate that they opened up to me about these incidents during a focus group discussion. This had been going on for some time but they never mentioned it to management. This highlights two issues: lack of incident reporting and the fact that program delivery increased their exposure to GBV. Once apprised, I facilitated ways to avoid future incidents.
You've worked in a number of different countries, including many conflict zones. As a whole, do you think women staff members look at safety and security differently than their male co-workers?
In general, and to varying degrees, I have found some men can be slightly more cavalier about security simply because they haven’t experienced gender inequality and the increase in vulnerability to GBV. This attitude could also come from the cultural norm that men are assumed to be protectors and shouldn't show weakness or fear. In other situations, women take greater personal risks in deciding to work for humanitarian agencies and can easily become targets (especially in very strict contexts where females are oppressed). However, at the end of the day, it comes down to the individual and his or her acceptance and understanding of security.
From your experience, which countries have a high risk of sexual assault among female humanitarian aid workers?
GBV is driven by context — society, culture and religion. Staff members may suffer GBV but most often, do so in their own private lives, often hidden from others, especially co-workers. I cannot say for sure which countries have a higher risk of rape or sexual assault. The statistics don't really matter as sexual assault — as we all know — is hugely under-reported. You can just assume it is prevalent everywhere.
I don’t know why, but there is one situation that has always pre-occupied my mind and that is how the conditions in Banda Aceh deteriorated over time. With an influx of foreigners in an otherwise closed area before the Tsunami, some of the local men had pre-conceived ideas of what western women were like. During the later phases of emergency response and reconstruction there were increasing incidents of harassment, assault and rape against international female staff and female staff from Jakarta. I myself experienced sexually inappropriate comments and advances. What was also starting to happen, was the increased exercising of Sharia law (in response to exposure to western culture). This became a factor that lead to an alarming increase of incidents of GBV against local female staff working for INGOs. This is a very specific example of the impact of presence and of the gender-specific risks that exist and need to be anticipated.
What are some ways to mitigate the risks?
Better security risk assessment and analysis, for one. Acknowledging that different gender groups have different needs and vulnerabilities depending on the specific context. Taking the time to talk and look deeper into day-to-day situations that may put others at further risk is important. This should be understood for both security management (staff security) and program design (beneficiary security). We tend to prioritize the flashy threats such as kidnapping or terrorist attacks. But in reality, life threatening GBV incidents are more frequent. We also want to assert that standard operating procedures and contingency planning are gender neutral. But that's not the case. In order to better reduce risk, we must consider the nature of gender-specific risks and vulnerabilities within specific situations. Specifically, we can achieve this through having a balanced perspective reflected in security assessments which identify context-specific gender risks. The goal is better mainstreaming gender in security management. We also need to promote compliance of agency-wide internal policies of intolerance to all GBV.
When we talk about gender security issues, there's a tendency to focus GBV. What other issues should we be aware of?
We should be aware of sexual exploitation and abuse, intimidation, inappropriate sexual comments, gender inequality and inequity in work and pay. We need to be aware of how our programming and operations can put certain individuals further at risk. And finally, although it often is associated with GBV, we should be aware of supporting personnel who are suffering from domestic abuse.
What can humanitarian organizations be doing better in terms of gender-related security?
Start right from needs assessment and program design — consult with women and girls — consider how programming and carrying out programming may increase vulnerability. We need to listen better and not assume. We need more opportunity to address gender and security without fear of it as a taboo subject.
What advice can you give male humanitarian workers to become more aware of and sensitive to gender-related security issues?
Try to be more compassionate in understanding that women and girls sometimes encounter more challenges in all aspects of their lives. This is situation dependent of course, and I am generalizing. But try to see things from their perspective and then anticipate what may pose more of a challenge and risk. It really comes down to treating all persons, men, women, boys and girls, with the dignity and gender equality they deserve.
Any closing thoughts?
I would really like to stress the following messages. Gender specific threats relate to and concern both women and men. All of the assessment, considerations and planning we do must address both gender groups and their exposure to risk. This can be complex as gender roles are very context dependent, being defined by such factors as individual behavior perceptions, accepted levels of interaction between males and females, association with Western NGOs, and cultural expectations. In addition to this deeper understanding, there are practical measures. Incident reporting data should include gender and be accounted for in analysis. Gender-specific risk should be incorporated into training. We are not doing as good of a job incorporating gender into security management as we do with other issues. But I believe with greater awareness we can change that.