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.
So, three years later, what has changed?
A colleague with decades of experience in United Nations offices around the world and in New York said this:
I have been sexually harassed by high-level officials at the UN headquarters, cornered in public meeting rooms with other men watching and doing absolutely nothing about it. A General once asked a male colleague of mine to “procure me” for him and offered to be very generous in exchange. There’s still a culture that allows these men to think they can (to KNOW they can) get away with it.
Here’s what one seasoned humanitarian aid worker had to say:
I think there’s been some changes actually, slightly more reports, slightly more women coming forward, less tolerance for these behaviors. This is all to do with COVID and BLM and the whole conversations around racism and decolonizing aid, which has allowed for misogyny to also be scrutinized. More awareness and talk of the pervasiveness and unacceptability, and of course social media helps. Although just need to caveat that it’s not dramatic change. I don’t want to be too optimistic!
Another senior aid worker with years of experience worldwide told me this:
While it is true that more tools are being created for women to report and more women do try to come forward, the treatment of potential victims by those in charge of those tools remains overall insensitive and end results low. Women can be revictimized going through these processes — this ends up discouraging other women from using them.
Ultimately, women continue to face abuse, harassment, discrimination in every workplace — humanitarian aid is no exception. Violence against women exists everywhere. Pay gaps remain wide. And we know that no country has achieved gender equality. This doesn’t mean we surrender. In fact, we have to renew our fight.
In our article, we asked what hope we might have for gender equality when the very systems established to deliver that equality remain dramatically unequal?
We need to ask that question every day — in every space we occupy — or we’ll never be truly free or equal.