How Does Gender Affect the Security of Humanitarian Staff?

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Regarding the question of how gender affects the security of humanitarian staff, in short, not nearly enough data has been collected. While the field of humanitarian security management has advanced significantly in recent years, serious gaps remain in both knowledge and practice. Violence against humanitarian workers has reached record highs, yet little is known about critical aspects of humanitarian security, including gender-related issues.

Significant advances in data collection and reporting on violence against humanitarians have yielded a great deal of knowledge about disparities with regard to violence and security between national and international staff, as well as how one’s organizational affiliation affects one’s chances of being victimized. One area of concern is that international staff often receive priority in terms of security training, resources, and procedures despite the fact that national staff suffer the vast majority — 87%, according to Humanitarian Outcomes — of attacks in the humanitarian field. In contrast, according to the same study, international staff members comprised 13% of attack victims in 2013, though this figure was disproportionate to international staff members’ roughly 8% share of total field staff. A great deal of research attention has also focused on the types of organizations whose staff are attacked. Staff of national NGOs and national Red Cross/Crescent Societies suffered the most attacks in 2013 (43%), followed by international NGOs (28%), UN agencies (24%), and the ICRC (3%).

However, very little research exists regarding the gendered nature of attacks on humanitarian workers. Do male and female aid workers experience different security threats? Does vulnerability depend on humanitarians’ nationality, geographic location, or the portfolio of issues on which they work? And how do security threats or attacks on male or female aid workers impact operational decision-making? Humanitarian Outcomes’ Aid Worker Security Report 2014, despite offering a wealth of valuable data, does not disaggregate its results by gender (i.e. the sex of the aid workers, or the portfolio of humanitarian issues on which these professionals worked), and their security incident database does not include gender information for 56% of victims (1,938 victims out of 3,474 total). The reason for this omission is that most security incident reports submitted from the field do not specify the sex of the victim, or their professional portfolio, though Humanitarian Outcomes encourages field workers to provide this information. Gender information is available in the database for 1,473 victims (42%) of attacks from 1997 to 2014, of which 1,265 (86%) are reported as male and 208(14%) as female. It is unclear whether male or female aid workers face higher relative rates of violence — or different types of violence —since gender-disaggregated data is also unavailable on the total humanitarian worker population. Moreover, even less reliable data exists on the portfolio of humanitarian workers who have fallen victim to attack. Does working in gender-related issues put humanitarians at a greater risk of attack, or a greater risk for different types of attack? Anecdotal evidence suggests that, in certain countries or contexts, humanitarian professionals who work on gender issues are targeted for attack. Attacks have included threats of acid attacks against people who work on gender in Pakistan, or different types of violence targeted aid workers, such as threatening men with killing and women with sexual assault.

A few studies have attempted to address these questions, though these studies suffer from a lack of sufficient data. OCHA’s 2011 study notes that while the relative risks to male and female staff are unknown due to a lack of data, it is important to assess security threats and vulnerabilities differently for different types of staff:

Survey results indicate that most national aid workers perceive that the sex of staff has little affect on individual security, but some respondents believed that females face a higher risk. In areas where strong cultural attitudes exist regarding women and men working together and the status of women in society (for instance parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan) the presence of female staff can potentially be a serious security liability if the organisation does not take measures to demonstrate respect for local norms.

Analyzing available data on security incidents for 2008 to 2010, Wille and Fast found notable differences in the types of violence experienced by male and female aid workers: women were more vulnerable to threats and crime (such as burglary and theft), particularly in urban areas and places of residence or work, whereas men were disproportionately killed or injured, particularly in rural areas or when traveling on the road. Gaul et al. also found that male and female aid workers face unique risks: men face a higher likelihood of violent confrontation, whereas women face a higher likelihood of sexual assault or harassment. Speer Mears further note the relevance of gender considerations to both men and women. Moreover, Wille and Fast’s study suggests that security incidents affecting men had a greater impact on operational decisions and aid delivery. This difference may be due to a greater proportion of men in the field, more serious risks facing men, or the fact that men’s victimization is simply taken more seriously in operational decision-making. Security management, after all, tends to be a male-dominated field. Yet once again, the lack of gender-disaggregated security data makes it difficult to answer these questions conclusively.

Without gender-disaggregated data on security risks, it is also difficult to put effective and risk-sensitive organizational policies and procedures in place. In a 2006 study, Gaul et al. found that most organizations that the study reviewed lacked gender-specific security policies and procedures, relying on the faulty “underlying assumption that gender-neutral security policies equate to gender-equality.” While some humanitarian organizations provide gender-specific security guidelines to their staff, these guidelines are typically limited to restrictions on women’s dress or movement, as reflective of local cultural norms or gender roles.

There is ample evidence, however, that gender matters greatly for the populations that humanitarian actors serve. Due to differences in terms of status and roles played in society, violent conflict and disaster affect men, women, girls, and boys differently. These groups experience different forms of violence, displacement, and disrupted livelihoods. Given the profound affect that gender can have in environments of conflict and disaster, especially with regard to human security, there is little reason to believe that humanitarian workers themselves would be immune from these effects. As with the risks faced by vulnerable populations, an understanding of the different risks faced by humanitarian workers is crucial to designing and implementing an effective response.


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