Identity and violence in humanitarian work

In which way does your identity – who you are – influence the likelihood and consequence of different threats while working abroad? Within the humanitarian world, the topic of identity related threats has generally been neglected, often explained with the lack of objective facts or statistics. The sex, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc. of employees has in most cases not influenced the risk assessments made by organisations, but the risks have rather been seen as general. It has been easier to focus on apparent threats with an external offender, such as kidnappings, car-jackings or air raids – concrete threats that affect the role of an aid worker rather than the identity behind.

In the quite recent Aid Worker Security Report 2019 from Humanitarian Outcomes they raise sexual violence and gender based risks as prioritised topics. The report concludes that there is still a big knowledge-gap in terms of data and statistics, but they have nevertheless done an in-depth analysis of their own database as well as interviewed a number of security advisors from different organisations.

8% of total female victims have been exposed to sexual violence. There is also a probability that some of the 30% encoded as “kidnapped” also has had to endure sexual violence.

The report clearly shows the need for including sexual violence and harassment in the general risk assessments made by employers, and that it also is a topic which needs to be included in high risk trainings for deployed staff.

Address normalisation

In a recent study researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden, assessed to which rate their students had experienced sexual offences and harassments while commuting in Stockholm. The study shows that nearly half of the female students had been verbally or physically harassed. The report suggets three main actions to be made:

  1. Proper mapping (i.e. coding in an incident database) to be able to know what happens and where, to be able to work preventatively;
  2. Counter normalisation so that survivors as well as offenders know what constitutes harassment
  3. Service providers and the police need to take the threat seriously and ensure that actions are taken, otherwise those targeted will stop reporting.

Humanitarian Outcomes recommends similar actions, supported by other studies and reports[1]. They address sexual violence, but identify organisational kulturs as the cause. A culture which permits perpetrators to work and remain there even after having committed offences. They suggest changing cultures, but also training employees in methods such as active bystander or bystander intervention i.e. how a colleague and/or person at risk can identify risk behaviour and what can be done to interfere and stop a potential incident in time.

Include and train

That identity influences the risk is to me obvious and something I have experienced and observed countless times in Sweden and abroad.

Employees need to include identity as a factor in their risk assessments. They also need a solid and robust organisation to manage these types of incidents when they do occur. But most importantly – and also in order to be able to manage the incidents properly – they need to actively work to create a culture which does not permit sexual violence and other forms of harassment. Creating this type of culture takes time, but it is not impossible.

Likewise, the training institutions need to find ways to tackle the question of identity and threats and create a space for reflection around identity and roles, without exposing the participants to traumatic events.

[1] European Interagency Forum, Feinstein International Centre has over the past few years released studies and reports within the area of risk and gender involving international aid workers