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Published: March 7, 2023

Embracing Equitable Security Risk Management: a person-centred approach to women’s security

By: Scarlett Moore Isabel Moore

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An aid worker’s vulnerability to security risks is impacted by their personal characteristics. Taking a person-centred approach to security that identifies and addresses the risks faced by individuals is essential to keeping aid workers safe. That’s why, on International Women’s Day, we’re asking why we need to recognise gender-specific risks, and why hearing women’s voices in conversations about security is so important.

This year, International Women’s Day is campaigning for people everywhere to ‘embrace equity’. We spoke to some of our members and other humanitarians about what equitable security risk management (SRM) looks like, and why it is essential to enable safe, sustainable aid programmes.

How can the way we do SRM become more equitable?

I am keenly aware (both professionally and personally) that achieving equity or acting equitably is not necessarily the same as ‘treating everyone the same’. Making the practice of SRM equitable does not mean applying the same risk mitigation measures for all staff in all places – not only are there context-specific challenges that need to be addressed, but there are inherent differences in risk for men and women in some locations/contexts. It is important that we, as an industry, adopt a people-centric approach to SRM, which includes considering the specific risks for an individual in a context (this applies not only to the ‘men’s risk vs women’s risk’ debate, but also those of different nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientation, gender identification, etc.).

There is a fine line to balance when considering how to make the practice of SRM more equitable. On the one hand, not diminishing or discrediting the capability, experiences, professionalism, and capacity of women by giving in to lazy stereotyping of women’s vulnerabilities (‘the fairer sex’, identifying ‘women’ as a homogenous group rather than seeing sex as one of many factors in an individual’s risk profile, and falling into traps which verge on misogyny). On the other hand, being honest about the genuine differences in each individual woman’s particular vulnerabilities and needs. This is a hard line to tread but must be done to make SRM practice more equitable.
– Frances Andrews, WVI

Equitable SRM starts with us. It starts with having a diverse team who value the unique contributions of others. Security leaders model the way others are received and treated. Leaders shape the culture of an organisation and how SRM is understood and implemented.

SRM is by nature, designed to be equitable – considering the impact of risks on all staff and programmes. Yet it is up to us as practitioners to ensure security measures do not disproportionately impact other groups of people. I’ve seen where project implementation has disproportionately impacted women, particularly in locations with high crime or armed gangs and during times of conflict and natural disasters.

While facilitating risk assessments in different countries, I’ve heard men say to their female colleagues that sexual assault isn’t a risk and dismissed the threat from being evaluated. Several years ago, I was told that I didn’t qualify for a training opportunity because I was a woman…Ouch. And unfortunately, I have numerous other examples of women leaving an organization because they didn’t feel safe.

As leaders, we must ensure equity is the fuel to ‘how we do it’ (our values). Otherwise, we may only be shifting risk. It’s my goal that no one feels invisible when I’m in the room and that everyone is heard, valued, and safe.
-Shannon Fariel-Mureithi, ChildFund International

There is a great need to be more strategic and more gender sensitive to make SRM become more equitable. So, there is a need for gender mainstreaming in all processes for positive results. Also, increasing women’s representation in leadership and decision making would be a step in the right direction.
-Josephine Alabi, Keen and Care Initiative

Why is it important to hear women’s voices in networks like GISF?

It is important that we hear different voices, opinions, attitudes, and skills in networks like GISF. Women’s perspectives and experiences may differ to men’s, and this range of opinion, knowledge, and capacity adds value to the network.

Women need to see positive reflections of themselves; this is particularly important in humanitarian SRM, a sector that has traditionally been male dominated, but has changed greatly over the past 10 years. Women’s voices are valuable and bring a greater depth and scope to the network. GISF understands the intersectional nature of diversity and inclusion and the benefits this brings when we get it right.
-Heather Hughes, GISF

It is not unusual for the perspectives of women to be underheard, particularly when it comes to security and conflict. GISF provides a networking, research, and learning forum where there is no distinction between genders. We are free to innovate and spur one another to do better. GISF provides a safe space to have the difficult discussions. GISF is also positioned uniquely to influence change by representing the humanitarian security community.
-Shannon Fariel-Mureithi, ChildFund International

GISF should be (and is) pioneering how SRM is conceptually approached and practically implemented. Hearing women’s voices in the network is essential to ensure that the specific experiences and skills of women are included in thought leadership and best practice in the sector. Including women in these networks, and giving them the space to openly contribute, provides a holistic approach to SRM within the sector and allows better sharing and learning across NGOs with regards to SRM more broadly, and women’s concerns and contributions specifically. This is especially important for security teams from NGOs where there may be no women on their teams, and so these are opportunities to ensure that they are deliberately challenging their thinking and hearing directly from women involved in SRM.
-Frances Andrews, WVI

We need women around the table to address or discuss some crucial issues affecting women at all different levels. Women can understand women’s matters better at any time. So, it is very important to hear women’s voices in networks like GISF because issues affecting women are better addressed by women.
-Josephine Alabi, Keen and Care Initiative

Can you share an example where the importance of women in security has been demonstrated?

On our HEAT courses (which are run in-house), we usually have at least two women as instructors. During the training, there is a session on gender security where these issues are openly discussed and addressed. Anecdotally, on every single HEAT course, we have women from our organisation or other NGOs (we open our trainings to other NGOs when we have spaces etc.) coming up to our women instructors and disclosing experiences of sexual harassment, assault, sexual violence, or discrimination that they have experienced in their lives (personal and professional lives, including before they worked for our organisation – not just cases they’ve had within their current role). Arguably, without these women instructors, the women participants would not feel comfortable coming forward and telling these stories – our male instructors do get these stories from time to time, but infrequently compared to the women instructors. These stories help us understand the risks our staff face in different contexts and can help shape the way we practice SRM.
-anonymous GISF member

Image Credit: UN OCHA/Damilola Onafuwa


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