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“Humanitarian Day”… and we’re still harassed

Lina AbiRafeh

Today is World Humanitarian Day, a day we celebrate people who help people. I used to be one of those people, so I’ve got a lot to say about it.

Firstly, the backstory. World Humanitarian Day was born out of tragedy. On 19 August 2003, a bomb attack in Iraq killed 22 humanitarian aid workers. In 2008, the United Nations designated 19 August as World Humanitarian Day.

That’s today. Again.

Today we’re supposed to renew our commitment to advocate for those affected by crisis — while also not compromising our safety and security in the process. And we are at risk — this is undeniable.

In 2021, 460 aid workers were attacked: 140 killed, 203 wounded, and 117 kidnapped.

But there are other risks, too.

Three years ago, a group of female humanitarians — friends, colleagues, women I admire whose work has spanned decades and regions — got together to discuss. The result was an impromptu social media poll with over 600 responses in a matter of days.

What challenges do you face in the field, we asked?

41% of respondents said sexual harassment was their biggest concern.

We couldn’t leave it there. Individually and collectively, we four had been working to promote women’s rights and gender equality in the countries we’d worked in — and within the system itself. And in all our experience, we continuously argued that aid agencies should be — claim to be! — champions for gender equality but that female employees face violence and discrimination from within the system.

This isn’t just us — there’s tons of research to back this up.

We had spent hours, days, years in the field lamenting the “cowboy culture” of our humanitarian work, where women are told that they must “handle” the harsh realities of the work — or find a job elsewhere.

We released an article on 19 August 2019. That year, World Humanitarian Day was dedicated to women — the “unsung heroes”. We argued that praise rings hollow without real change — and even more so when the women they celebrate are victims of the system.

Our article — Praise for female aid workers rings hollow when harassment is pervasive — is now three years old. It’s worth asking… What has changed?

In our article, we noted that respondents — our colleagues — felt that the system rewards sexism and discrimination and hides abuses, while simultaneously paying lip service to “gender equality”.

Violence and discrimination exists within aid agencies — it exists everywhere. But aid agencies lack safe and confidential reporting mechanisms.

More than 400 women shared stories describing a culture of sexual exploitation and discrimination — where they are mocked for arguing in favor of their own safety and forced to tolerate the “boys club” culture that pervades. They shared being denied opportunities like equal pay, benefits, and protections — simply because they are women.

We noted that the discrimination we face is layered. National women and those with intersecting marginalized identities face much greater obstacles than expatriate women.

Some women were told they were “too young and too pretty” to be managing complex emergencies — and perhaps should serve as the admin instead.

Gosh! What do women want?!

Our article outlined solutions. Like equal treatment, greater leadership, and, ultimately, a shift in the humanitarian culture.

We want to dismantle the unequal distribution of power.

We said it then — and we still want it.

Read the full article here.

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