Cosantoir Group

Gender Security: Knowledge is Key

by Ellen Peralta:

When a friend of mine recently set off for a year-long placement with an Non-Governmental Organization in Mexico, I found myself worrying about her safety and security during her year away. I worried that she may be harmed, for one reason or another, while working abroad in a potentially unstable environment. And, like many loved ones and friends of NGO employees before me, I worried about the fact that she was a woman.

After I began to research gender security in NGOs, I soon learned I could count myself among the misinformed. When hearing the words “gender security,” most people, myself included, are naturally inclined to assume that the subject relates to threats, mainly sexual, exclusive to female workers. Though sexual harassment and violence against women do figure prominently in the realm of gender-specific security incidents, they are certainly not the only gender-specific threat.

In exploring the role that gender might play in security incidents and management, it is crucial that we gain an understanding of when gender is relevant. To do so, it is important that we enter the general discussion of NGO security. NGOs oftentimes operate in hostile and unstable environments to distribute humanitarian aid. Threats to employee safety and security could take place in anything from a coup to a hurricane, a civil war to a planned kidnapping. It is when an NGO employee is targeted, rather than arbitrarily threatened, that we begin to examine the role of gender in the security incident. Anyone, for example, could be hurt when in the direct path of a tsunami, their safety threatened independent of their gender.  When a belligerent directly targets an NGO or its employees, there is cause to examine the role gender plays as an explanation for such behavior.

Incidents in which an employee may be targeted include: threats, crime, kidnapping, arrest, armed conflict, murder and injury.

I. Deficits in Gender Security Management

Insufficient Data: Examining trends and frequencies in incident reports is one of the first steps in gaining an understanding of gender-specific security threats. There is – today a scarcity of information regarding gender-specific risks to security. The deficits stem from the following:

  • Many NGOs deliberately do not mention gender in security incident reports for purposes of staff confidentiality and safety.
  • Most organizations lack the technological capacity to adequately record and analyze incident reports to determine trends in gender-specific incidents (“NGO Security: Does Gender Matter?,” Gaul et al.).
  • There is no standard inter-organization sharing program that allows NGOs access to information about other NGOs’ security incidents to determine trends in gender security risk. Such information is generally gathered manually and is often regarded as unnecessary expenses, rather than necessary security costs.
  • There is an increased problem of under-reporting of incidents on the part of staff for fear that they may be seen as weak, or unable to handle high-risk environments.

Gender Neutral or Women-Focused Security Policies: Gender neutrality in Western cultures is a typically regarded as a welcome and progressive idea in the workplace, the term oftentimes synonymous with gender equality. Overly western ideologies, especially when implemented for staff in hostile cultures, however, can lead to unsafe work practices (“Gender and Aid Agency Security Management,” SMI). In contrast, security policies that address only specific risks for female employees places male employees at a disadvantage in terms of training and understanding.

Improper Training: Because of the general dearth of information on gender-specific security threats, most NGOs do not have the proper security training in place to address such issues. As a result, both male and female workers face a disadvantage in the event they find themselves in a security incident.

II. Are there known or recorded gender-specific security-related issues?

In a research brief by Insecurity Insight, authors Christina Wille and Larissa Fast compiled data to determine whether men and women aid workers experience different types of security events (“Aid, Gender and Security: The Gendered Nature of Security Events Affecting Aid Workers and Aid Delivery”). The pair gathered information from 1,361 NGO workers affected in 615 security incidents to determine their findings. From the data, Wille and Fast compiled the following trends in gender-specific security incidents:

  • Reported male workers experienced more incidents of active fighting, death and injury than reported female workers (from incidents where gender was listed).
  • Reported female workers experienced more incidents of threat and are victims of crime more than reported male workers.
  • Male workers experienced security incidents primarily while in rural areas or while traveling.
  • Female workers experienced security incidents primarily while in urban areas, residences, workplace and organization compounds.
  • Most male security incidents occurred in Asia and the Middle East.
  • Most female security incidents occurred in Latin America and Africa.
  • Conventional attitudes reflect organizational actions:
    • Agencies are more likely to make operational decisions following security incidents that happen to men, whose victimization is taken as a serious threat as compared to women, who are seen as naturally vulnerable.

Though incidents of male sexual harassment and rape have occurred, female workers are more likely to face sexual harassment or rape than their male counterparts.

Men working on the ground face a greater risk of being mistaken for a spy or combatant, increasing the likelihood of violence against them.

III. Moving Forward

In order to create safer environments for both male and female aid workers, it is imperative NGOs make a concentrated effort at understanding, recognizing and mitigating gender-specific security risks. To do so, NGOs should aim at the following:

Better research: Improving incident reporting and analyzing will lead to a greater understanding of trends in gender-specific security incidents. Such data will provide NGOs a foundation off which to build security management programs that adequately address gender-specific issues.

Better assessment of risks to men and women: Evaluate threats and vulnerability unique to male and female workers. Research on the national culture in which an NGO works will help gain an understanding of gender-specific risks to workers in the area.

Improved security training techniques: After gaining a better understanding of gender-specific risks, NGOs should implement proper security training for male and female workers. Improving communication between gender specialists and security specialists will maximize the utility of new security training.

Information for this post was gathered from the following sources:

1. “NGO Security: Does Gender Matter?” Written by Gaul, Keegan, Lawrence and Ramos in conjunction with Save the Children USA and The Georg Washington University.

2. “Gender and Security Management,” published under the Security Management Initiative (SMI).

3. “Aid, Gender and Security: The Gendered Nature of Security Events Affecting Aid Workers and Aid Delivery” written by Christina Wille and Larissa Fast for Insecurity Insight.