Shifting the culture of silence around rape and sexual assault in humanitarian aid and international development (www.expatbackup.com)My friend Jina Moore, journalist and the international women’s rights correspondent for BuzzFeed News, has written an excellent story about sexual violence and aid workers called, “An Aid Worker Was Raped In South Sudan And The U.N. Did Almost Nothing About It.” It’s a compelling picture of just how difficult it is for those of us working in humanitarian emergencies to get help and support after rape and sexual assault, from our organizations and even from our communities.

Whatever the reasons – and there are many – we in the aid and development community still co-create a system where discussing sexual violence is often taboo and which surrounds acts of sexual violence with a culture of impunity. Cases of sexual assault between aid workers often go unreported to employers and national authorities. Even when aid workers are assaulted by strangers and the incident registers as a security incident to the employee’s organization, direct organizational support to the survivor in the weeks and months after is often lacking.

On a personal level, it can be really tough to know what to say to a friend or colleague who has survived sexual assault. And the discomfort and uncertainty that surrounds reaching out often further isolates the survivor, leaving her* even more at risk of depression, anxiety, extreme stress, trauma, and PTSD.

If you have a friend who is a survivor, don’t be shy. Reach out, even if you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Be conscious not to touch her without asking permission, and just be present for where she is. Let her know that wherever she is, whatever she is feeling, she is not alone.

And on a professional level, let’s shift this culture of silence into one of vocal support for survivors and professional intolerance of sexual violence in any form. As a community of aid workers invested in our own well being, we have an opportunity to shift the dialogue about how we address and respond to rape and sexual assault in our community.

Amongst ourselves, we can shift the story from shock and horror into one of care and compassion, right now. Rather than gossiping and creating fear when sexual assault happens in our community, we can share supportive strategies and help to create organizational accountability for staff welfare. Little by little, one person at a time, we can turn this around.

Often in our small aid worker communities, we have a tendency to deconstruct security incidents to figure out what went wrong, or subtly point out what survivors could’ve done differently to prevent the attack from happening in the first place. This needs to stop. Victim blaming allows us to distance ourselves falsely from the members of our community who were assaulted, so that we feel more secure. By framing the conversation around “what went wrong” or “what they did wrong,” we try to insulate and convince ourselves that this kind of violence could never happen to us – even though it’s not true.

Here’s a core takeaway that’s a good starting point: There is nothing, I repeat, nothing, that survivors of sexual assault could have done differently to change or prevent what happened.

Rape and sexual assault is a crime, plain and simple. It’s time that we treat it as such and that we compassionately and consciously support survivors in our communities, without guilt, blame or shame. This is just one way that we create a community dialogue around how to shift the culture and prevent sexual violence from happening again in the future.

I applaud Megan Nobert’s courage in sharing her story and her attempts to seek justice within the UN system. Her tenacity to continue with an arduous process, as a staff member seeking to open an investigation, paves the way for others to do the same in other systems, places and ways. I stand with Megan and all of the others as we come forward to stand together and end the culture of impunity around sexual violence in international development and aid.

One of the things that struck me most about Megan’s story was how utterly alone she must’ve felt as she processed and dealt with her ordeal. I don’t want any woman to feel that way (or man, for that matter; men are raped too). We are a community of aid workers, of people who are in service. We can do better to support each other when we need help. I know we can.

Some Ideas about Next Steps to Shift Rape Culture in Aid Work

A key issue I see is that there is a lack of crisis intervention services for survivors of sexual assault within our communities and organizations. In large US cities, programs like SAVI at Mount Sinai Hospital, has a team of Emergency Room Volunteers to advocate for the medical, legal and security decisions of the survivor. Having an advocate helps a survivor of sexual assault start to regain a feeling of control, an important part of jump-starting recovery.

In addition, staff medical centers need to have appropriate medical and evidence kits for survivors of sexual assault. That includes Plan B pregnancy prophylaxis, a cocktail of antibiotics and a month of HIV post-exposure prophylaxis, available immediately. Blood and urine are also necessary to collect for evidence of drugs as soon as possible, which also requires quick access to a local lab for testing. In addition, there are the protocols for collecting evidence and filing a police report. Having advocates trained to help the survivor navigate this would make a huge difference for our sisters and brothers who face this.

When I was working back at UN Headquarters in New York, I trained as a Crisis Advocate with SAVI and would show up in emergency rooms around the city to advocate for patient needs after sexual or intimate partner violence. My training took 40 hours, about as long as it takes to become a lifeguard, and the one day a month that I was on-call, I would show up at any of the Mount Sinai network’s city hospitals and stay for at least the first few critical hours. I keep thinking that it wouldn’t be that hard to set something like this up in our duty stations, or even online.

We need volunteers like these advocates in our communities and our duty stations, coming to the aid of survivors of sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies around the world. Survivors need advocates to help them work through the systems required to properly address the crime that has occurred, from the emergency room to the bosses in the office. I’m not sure exactly what this would look like, but I know that Megan is not the only one and that we can’t stay silent to this suffering any longer.

All of us, in different ways, are called to become advocates if we want to shift aid culture. Let’s start the conversations that make this cultural shift happen. We don’t have to know all the answers, but by raising our voices together we actively diminish guilt and shame. We make it safe for others to speak out.

Many aid workers face trauma, extreme stress and PTSD from our environment and our jobs. The toll that this takes on our health and happiness is massive, and it doesn’t need to continue any longer. By raising the issue, we create awareness and contribute to the momentum of change.

Putting Staff Welfare on the Humanitarian Agenda

These issues aren’t news to those of us who have been at the frontlines of emergencies and humanitarian crises. Many of us in the aid worker wellness community are getting behind a petition to put staff wellness on the agenda at the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit. It’s titled, “UN: Address staff welfare at the World Humanitarian Summit to #ReshapeAid” and is addressed directly UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien and the Summit. You can sign it here.

The basic premise is that as aid workers, we need our health and happiness supported and protected by the organizations we work for. Brendan McDonald wrote an advocacy piece on the development site WhyDev, “Let’s put staff welfare on the agenda at the World Humanitarian Summit,” exploring more about his reasons for starting the petition. “In the last 15 years, aid work has become an ever-deadlier profession. Since 2000, 2,913 national staff have been killed or injured for their work, along with 544 internationals. Hundreds of others have been kidnapped or violently assaulted,” Brendan writes. “Those who suffer psychologically are rarely provided with adequate help.”

I’ve explored a lot of issues that are often not shared about, and brought up different ways I see the problem. When we start standing up for each other and standing for a culture of protection and accountability, we get closer to making The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.

Sharing is Caring

If this issue is as close to your heart as it is to mine, please share this with others in your community, your family and your friends. Maybe it can be a tool for more of us to get support as we come forward and share our experiences and work together to change the culture of silence that has caused too much suffering for too long.

And for those of you who haven’t read the work of Jina More at BuzzFeed News, I suggest that you do. She’s one of many women leaders in the world right now who recognizes that our strength does not lie in silence. You can check out a complete list of her work at BuzzFeed here.

If you’d like to get more Expat Backup, you can subscribe here. And reach out to connect with me at elie@expatbackup.com — I love to hear from you.

* Women are the majority of sexual assault survivors, but the problem also affects men and other genders. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I’m going to use the female pronoun “she” to define survivors.

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