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Published: March 8, 2022

International Women’s Day 2022: ‘breaking the bias’ in humanitarian security risk management

By: Scarlett Moore

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Despite making significant strides over recent years, security risk management policies and practices often fail to consider the specific risks that women face while working in the aid sector. This International Women’s Day, GISF’s Secretariat and members explore the biases that women working in humanitarian security face and the steps we need to take to promote risk management practices that are inclusive and informed by women’s experiences. 

This year’s International Women’s Day seeks to ‘break the bias’, moving past biases and stereotypes to create a world that recognises, involves and enables women to succeed. This is critical for effective humanitarian security risk management. Men and women experience security risks in very different ways, for example, with men facing three times the rate of physical violence. In contrast, women are significantly more vulnerable to sexual violence. However, security policies often fail to recognise and address these differences. While security policies and practices focus on the physical risks facing many male aid workers, the risks facing female aid workers are too frequently left unaddressed.

Addressing diversity in the personal profiles of staff promotes greater staff security and allows organisations to fulfil their duty of care obligations. Involving women in the security risk management process by hiring female security staff and consulting with other women organisation-wide is essential to ensuring that female aid workers can work safely. Creating an environment where women feel comfortable sharing their experiences, raising concerns, and contributing insights throughout the risk management process leads to more effective policies and practices that account for and effectively mitigate the risks that specifically women face.

Are there security risk management practices that you think fail to be inclusive of the specific challenges faced by female aid workers? If so, why?

‘I believe trust building and empathy are equally important elements for those managing security, especially when facing difficult situations or during incidents. I have seen that these skills and approaches by some security advisors have not always been given enough attention in practice. For sure, hardcore technical security advice is important, but behavioural skills in how to approach female and male aid workers seems equally important to manage security well’ (Susan Muis, Lutheran World Foundation).

‘Traditionally, the Security Risk Managers in the field fail to create the necessary pathways for female voices to be heard and highlighted. Humanitarian Access and SRM workshops and trainings, for example, tend to be dominated by male staff. It is therefore the responsibility of senior and middle management to give opportunities for female staff to be included in all those activities, allow for their opinions and views as frontline aid workers to influence SRM decision making and be given the opportunity to take up leadership positions in the sector’ (Panos Navrozidis, GISF).

‘It’s always at the implementation stage that there might be some problems or challenges due to lack of awareness or knowledge by a specific staff member or focal person. We need to address so many issues such as the following: need to break all barriers, need to address masculinity issues. There’s a need to create training opportunities for women. There’s a need for more women around the table on decision making. There’s a need for gender mainstreaming in all our policies at various locations or countries’ (Josephine Alabi, Keen and Care Initiative).

The theme of this year’s IWD is ‘breaking the bias’. What kind of biases do you think exist today that impact women working in security roles in the humanitarian sector?

‘As a female security manager, with also no military or police background, but 22 years’ experience in humanitarian and development work in the field and HQ, I can say that for newcomers that don’t know me, I might need a bit more time to prove I am credible than some other male security colleagues in that exact same situation’ (Susan Muis, Lutheran World Foundation).

‘In a country like Afghanistan, organisations do not trust women, and they always assume that men are the greatest choice for this job, since they are perceived as strong, and women are the second sex. Second, women are less interested because the majority of the male workforce does not believe in them. In Afghanistan, there are extremely few women in security leadership positions in NGOs. Even most women, in my experience, do not know how to deal with a minor security scenario or risk’ (Female security worker based in Afghanistan).

‘Despite sincere efforts from some partners to diversify the profiles of their program and support teams, the vast majority of field-based positions with elements of security risk management are occupied by men. “Breaking the bias” should become a fundamental management principle running across all sectoral functions. It cannot be isolated and focused only on the security sector but rather take a holistic approach promoting female leadership, introducing minimum gender standards supported by the necessary budgets, applying targeted recruitment approaches, adjusting staff benefits accordingly and overall influencing the organisational culture’ (Panos Navrozidis, GISF).

How do you think we can avoid these biases in the future?

‘Having a gender-balanced team can make it easier for people to approach the type of person they feel most comfortable with. In order to do so, we need to also allow female security managers to lead teams, since a good gender balance would ensure that the different skills, talents and possible ways of managing security can be used in practical terms and we can fulfil our duty of care well’ (Susan Muis, Lutheran World Foundation).

More emphasis is needed on women’s involvement in security leadership positions in war-torn nations like Afghanistan’. A greater understanding of security policy is required and a focus on how security risk management methods can be applied in different contexts. ‘Policy should be developed based on the context of the country and women should be involved from the start’ (Female security worker based in Afghanistan).

‘Working with both genders in a synergetic way, will allow for a linear change of knowledge, attitudes and practices, especially in those societies where such stereotypes are deeply entrenched. Again, any efforts to increase the number of female staff in security management will have to be part of something much bigger that highlights why organisations who take such equitable and inclusive approaches are more efficient and effective’ (Panos Navrozidis, GISF).

­­­Moving Forward: Making Security Risk Management Work for Women

Organisations are beginning to consider the threats that female staff face and build this into their risk management process. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve bias-free, inclusive security risk management practices that acknowledge and effectively mitigate the risks female aid workers face. Only by enabling women to participate in the development of security policies and practices, promoting gender mainstreaming and building a genuine gender balance in security teams can security risk management become truly inclusive.


Image Credit: Tom Pilston / Christian Aid


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