Fearing your own colleagues in the field

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have posted on my blog a link to this article about a woman journalist’s harrowing first night on an assignment abroad, because I would have been worried about endangering my career as an aid worker. The subject of this article that makes senior management incredibly uncomfortable: when safety for your employees isn’t about strangers or terrorists or angry mobs but, rather, from colleagues. MUCH easier to hire people who won’t talk about it than to hire someone who might bring up the issue.

But I’m posting the link. It’s too important not too. I don’t know the woman who wrote this. I know nothing about what happened here other than what she has written. But I have heard this SAME story from so many female aid workers – and gay male aid workers trying to hide their sexual orientation from colleagues – with just the titles of the people involved changed. And I will note that the one time I was being made uncomfortable by a co-worker – in Afghanistan, and he was not an Afghan – I was told by a UN HR representative, “One of the things you need to be able to do when you go into the field is to expect this, and if you can’t handle it, maybe working in the field isn’t for you.” I am still haunted by those words, which mean: we accept this as a norm, we will do nothing to change our organizational culture among male professionals, it’s their nature, it’s just how it is, the onus for your safety is entirely on you if you want a career in this field.” It was surreal, after the conversation, to then write a report on our agency’s work to improve the status of women in Afghanistan.

And I will also note that I’ve been here in Ukraine just a week and it’s been lovely, my co-workers are wonderfully respectful and I feel incredibly safe and secure and comfortable respected amongst them. So much so that I have just shared a link on my blog I never would have even five years ago. And that SHOULD be the norm.

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