We have been considering hosting a guest post for a while. Our growing readership comes primarily from the sectors we service and we wanted to use our the platform to amplify voices that do not otherwise find space publicly. With this - our very first guest post - AAPC is reproducing a small, personal account from one of the women we have supported. She has chosen to remain anonymous and we have done our best to obscure the identity of her employer as well. The author quit humanitarian work almost a decade ago but an unprompted review of her old sexual harassment complaint clawed open her healed wounds. She found herself struggling once again to make sense of the enforced decision of disappearing and leaving the work, and the world, that she loved so much behind her like a bad memory. This is her story. In her words.
"My stomach squirms and my breath sinks with sadness reading the news of a deadly incident involving a humanitarian worker. I look at photos shared on Facebook by people I met in my life when I was a humanitarian worker myself. I know some of the faces: people I met in Sudan, in Haiti… They are posting happy photos to remember the person who is now gone.This is not a professional article with photos taken by journalists “grasping the essence of war and humanitarian work”. This is people missing a friend and family member. I feel their pain and cry over their loss.
I did not know this young, loved person but this is common ground for me. Other people I did know have been killed while on a mission. As I have written before elsewhere, it is has felt like a part of the deal. When you dedicate your life to assist and protect vulnerable people in conflict zones, you take that risk. Had I died on a mission I would have been missed deeply and honestly, I am sure. The killing took place in the last country I lived, while I was still in love with this profession. My bowels churn…fortunately I was not killed or kidnapped. But my angst is not of sadness. Or not just of sadness. I feel angry and frustrated towards humanitarian organisations. I want to shout: Load of hypocrites!
The humanitarian world is highly hypocritical.
I am not talking about humanitarian projects and workers. I am talking about the way organisations treat humanitarian employees. I am talking about support and help when humanitarian workers are victimised. I am talking about myself, being sexually harassed by a colleague, losing my job, ending my career and finally being insulted by the same organisation that would have named a tree after me, had I died on the field. Fuck off.
What makes me angry is the realisation that the way my career was ended was not unique or casual. Although the sexual harassment was the straw that broke the camel’s back, my load was heavy before that incident. My wounds got deeper after it due to the lack of support and understanding. I had been exposed to life-threatening situations, heavy workload and emotionally painful experiences with absolutely no support. To add insult to injury, mechanisms in place, like rest and recovery days, were not respected and the Ombudsman office was a joke lacking the basic notions of respect and confidentiality.
In order to survive these hard conditions, with my family and friends far at home and without proper organisational support, I did what most women do. I created a network of friends in every new mission, and I dated. Sometimes I was lucky, sometimes I was not. When I was lucky, I met amazing people who are still in my life and close to my heart. Other times I fell in the hands of predatory men who used colleagues and women from other organizations as their personal harem. This is bad in any circumstances but extremely irresponsible in field humanitarian work.
In one such mission, I was in a very isolated position, in lock down conditions and internet did not work. I was dating a superior who cheated on me. I was so lonely that I tried to stay friends with him despite the infidelity in order to have someone to chat with in the little hole I was living. To my mortification and humiliation, he stopped answering my calls. I had been an easy prey, confident that if a superior had made advances to me it was certainly an honest interest in my person and not just “mission” diversion. My saving grace was a friend, an amazing woman, who was comprehensive beyond expectations, and supported me through all that self-abasement and terrible loneliness.
The #Metoo movement hit the humanitarian world in 2008 with a scandal affecting mainly Oxfam. This led to the implementation of some mechanisms with the aim of protecting women from sexual violence in many organisations. Nevertheless, it is window-dressing as there has not been a real effort in understanding and addressing the vulnerabilities of “humanitarian women”. It is such a tremendous pending task that I would not even know where does one start from. Equal opportunities to access decision making positions? Facilitating motherhood before you are too old for those who wanted it? Preventing predatory behaviour in (mostly) male employees? Enable and reward female leadership and working style?
The love for a beautiful profession and the fear of retaliation, leads to a lack of open internal critique in the sector. There are several serious unaddressed issues that harm and damage humanitarian workers, especially women. Sexual harassment, alcoholism, drug abuse, workplace bullying, promiscuity and lack of support when facing mental health challenges are the biggest ones that come to mind. One can argue that all these matters are to be expected when you choose such a tough profession. Agreed. Does this mean that organisations can hide behind this clever-sounding excuse than actually comply with the minimum standards that would be required in their own countries of registration, like Europe or USA? Well, it seems so.
Sexual harassment is the tip of the iceberg. Organisations are at least pretending to do something about it. Do not be fooled by them, for in my experience it is an eyewash.
I contacted the organisation where I was sexually harassed and, to my astonishment, not only was I insulted through the “investigation” process, I was denied explanations concerning the process and people involved in the adjudication of my allegations. Finally, even the Compliance Office plainly ignored my emails. This was not a story from long ago, this was 2019. What must be seen is that there is a culture of impunity and laxity rooted in the core of most organisations that cannot easily be changed.
I know mine is not the only voice in this song of protest. I love singing, I love choirs, I love the idea of my voice adding to the many, mainly female voices rising against the situation women face in humanitarian work. I hope our stories will be heard and things will change. To those who kept singing when I was silent, I am grateful. Now that I have found my voice, I lend it to keep the euphony going. Meanwhile, I hope the recall of my ordeal might reach the ears of women who might need reassurance and support in their struggle. To these women: remember you have the right to be happy; it is not you who is at fault but a broken system that must hear our songs of protest."