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The Dangers of Being a Woman Working in a Disaster Zone

Nov 24 2015 5:15 PM
The Dangers of Being a Woman Working in a Disaster Zone

Médecins Sans Frontières doctors treat the injured. Photo courtesy of MSF

Female aid workers don't just struggle with earthquake aftershocks and airstrikes; they have to face down sexual harassment, too.

After a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal in April this year, killing almost 9,000 people, the country was shaken by hundreds of aftershocks. Disaster relief teams scrambled to provide urgent help for as many people as possible, the convulsing ground making their job much more difficult.

Thirty-four year old London-based Natalie Curtis, a senior editorial and stories manager at ActionAid, was with the emergency response team of the international human rights charity at the time. "We were scaling mountains of rubble to reach communities in need, moving through fallen down buildings, with loose masonry and ground rubble," she says.

The destruction was remarkable. "Nearly all of the brick buildings were destroyed or severely damaged by the earthquake, so our emergency response team was passing through what would have been people's front rooms or bedrooms to get to the earthquake survivor camps. In Khokana, a village south of Kathmandu, we passed homes with their front missing entirely. There was dust and debris everywhere, and of course the aftershocks only made the situation worse. But we followed strict protocols and worked with local people to avoid the most dangerous areas and we made it through safely."

Many humanitarian aid workers—communications professionals like Curtis, health workers, and others assisting long term programmes that help some of the world's most vulnerable communities—commit their lives to social and environmental justice and the alleviation of poverty. Getting caught up in the aftermath of a natural disaster comes with the job.

Natalie Curtis (far right) with ActionAid in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. Photo courtesy of Vlad Sokhin/ActionAid

But evidence suggests that their situation is getting increasingly dangerous. In 2013, deaths of aid workers reached a record high at 155 worldwide—a 66 per cent rise in fatal attacks compared to the previous year, according to specialists Humanitarian Outcomes.

Earlier this month, the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which killed 22 people—14 of whom were MSF staff—prompted calls for an independent inquiry into whether the US committed a war crime.

While airstrikes, gunfire, and natural disasters are huge risks to aid workers of both genders, women face specific dangers. Lisa Reilly, the executive coordinator of the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), an organization that helps aid workers improve their security, says that women humanitarians face countless microaggressions that add up to a uniquely female experience. Unfortunately, these daily incidents are also those that are glossed over the most. Reilly mentions a Kenyan woman who put up with unwanted male attention for a year without reporting it. "She did not understand that this was sexual harassment and she should report it—she just assumed it was 'normal' for women working in that part of Nairobi."

Are we perpetuating the myth that there are some jobs that can't be done by an individual just because they're a woman?

When developing strategies to protect their workers, EISF, like many similar organizations, takes gender into consideration. But Reilly admits that designating women-only security training can be problematic. "By highlighting it are we saying women are more vulnerable than men rather than differently vulnerable? Are we perpetuating the myth that there are some jobs that can't be done by an individual just because they're a woman?"

One problem, she says, is that when women run training sessions for other women, they don't consider the implications of a very male environment out in the field. "The issues and concerns that are raised do not make it into the consciousness of the majority of security risk management professionals, who are male."

These concerns are more often around microaggressions that women in the field face—"the day to day issues that can make life uncomfortable," says Reilly. "Boys on mopeds grabbing women as they go past, drivers hanging out of windows and leering, and so on. Men are often oblivious to how these interactions can affect women who have to face low level harassment on a continual basis, as well as not knowing when it might escalate."

During disasters like the Nepal earthquake, it's part of Natalie Curtis's job to gather personal stories from the people affected for use in ActionAid's emergency appeals. That means willingly going out into potential danger—but this doesn't just include earthquake aftershocks.

Dr Natalie Roberts, an MSF doctor. Photo courtesy of MSF

Any staff travelling for work, like Curtis, has to undergo hostile environment training. "We basically get sent to a facility in the middle of nowhere and get trained how to negotiate safe passage, avoid carjacking, carry out emergency first aid and learn what to do if kidnapped. It's the most serious and important training course I've ever been on," Curtis explains.

The kidnapping threat for women aid workers came to light in a high profile case earlier this year, when Kayla Mueller was killed 18 months after her kidnap by ISIS in Syria. The American humanitarian had been assisting Syrian refugees in their journey to Turkey.

To mitigate as much risk as possible, ActionAid don't send staff into a conflict zone if it's under fire, says Curtis. The organisation has security teams both in London and in every country in which it operates, carrying out detailed risk assessments before anyone travels.

Some say it's almost easier because as a woman you're sometimes seen as less of a threat.

"I always travel with portable locks and an alarmed door stop to reinforce doors if needed," she adds. "When I check into a room, the first thing I'll do is secure my surroundings, checking that locks on windows work, that my room is not on the ground floor, or at the end of a block. If I'm not confident I'll be secure, I'll ask to change rooms. I also make sure I know which rooms my colleagues are in and I always carry a rape alarm."

Once in the country, she carries a "grab bag," containing what she would need if evacuated in a hurry. "This includes all my documents, some cash, a medical kit, food, a head torch, water for a day, a pocket knife and anything else that could come in useful." In Nepal, she slept next to her bag, clutching it every time an aftershock shook the building.

Being a woman can go both ways. In many environments, they are the only health workers able to treat female patients.

"I've worked in many gendered cultures like Pakistan, and increasingly Syria and Yemen, where it's very difficult for women to be examined by a man, particularly for pregnancy and childbirth," explains Dr Natalie Roberts, an MSF doctor who has worked in some of the world's most high risk zones, including Pakistan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. "Mainly in Pakistan, there was a huge benefit in having female medical staff on the ground who could see these patients."

Roberts adds that she hasn't had any negative experiences because of her gender, something she attributes partly to her status as a doctor. "Some say it's almost easier because as a woman you're sometimes seen as less of a threat," she says.

The gravest dangers Roberts has faced have been the frequent bombs raining down on Syria—and more recently, airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition of Arab states over Yemen. These strikes began in response to Houthi rebels attempting to oust the Yemeni government, but contributed to the deaths of almost 4,500 people in the first five months alone, according to UN figures.

Both environments have been pretty similar to work in, Roberts says. "I was moving around into areas where we don't have any permanent teams, so one of the big risks was often being on the road. Those are probably the most scary places I've been to."

I've managed surgical wards which had young men and boys from at least three armed groups who were injured fighting each other, sharing the ward with civilians.

To improve safety, forging relationships with local communities is key. Curtis says that one of the first things she does upon arrival in a country is get to know her driver and local staff. "Your relationship with your local team is the most important thing when working in a high risk country," she says.

It's the local women staff and volunteers who impress Curtis the most, and she is quick to praise a Nepalese women she worked with following the earthquake. "Our women's rights officer made sure the needs of women were considered at every stage of our response. On my first day in Nepal, after speaking with breastfeeding mothers in quake-affected communities who said they needed privacy when breastfeeding, she had our women's relief kits altered to include shawls."

Local connections are especially vital for an organization like MSF, which operates under a global policy of no weapons and no bodyguards. "We feel having weapons or bodyguards or protection would bring trouble to us," Roberts says. "Our acceptance is our security—we try to make sure that everyone involved in the conflict, internally and outside, understands where we're going and what we're doing."

She and her team spend a long time explaining their principles to local militant groups like the Séléka in the Central African Republic, or even ISIS. "Usually groups understand that there are repercussions to targeting or manipulating medical facilities or staff—they do not wish to lose access to healthcare, not just for themselves, but for the civilians living in areas under their control."

"I've managed surgical wards which had young men and boys from at least three armed groups who were injured fighting each other, sharing the ward with civilians. I've seen soldiers bring in injured opponents from armed groups, and vice versa. There's an underlying humanity that seems to persist, even during the most barbaric fighting on the ground."

Just weeks after I first speak with Roberts, news emerges of another MSF hospital ht by airstrikes, this time in Yemen. When I check in with her, she confirms the attack, which injured seven people, was on Haydan Hospital. She had worked at the medical facility in the past, and would hear raids overhead. "While I was in the hospital, despite having given the GPS coordinates to the Saudi-led coalition on regular occasions, and painting large MSF logos on the roof, there were often airstrikes in very close proximity that damaged the hospital structure," she says.

Though it is illegal under the Geneva Conventions to target any kind of hospital, this failed to protect Haydan from bombs intended for Houthi rebels, or the Kunduz facility from strikes intended—according to one former intelligence official—for the Taliban, which was believed to be organizing within its walls. "If we can clarify our relationship with armed groups on the ground with respect to protection of medical structures in war, why do we no longer have the capacity to do that with organized militaries? Where is the accountability?" says Roberts.

"For some reason they have disregarded international humanitarian law—the same laws that I have spent so much time explaining to armed groups on the ground."

With the world becoming an increasingly unstable place, Roberts has concerns that women will be put off jobs like hers in the future. "If they cannot offer us any explanation as to why they destroyed our hospital, how can anyone be expected to go to provide medical care in places like this, where it is needed most?"

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