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Published: March 8, 2017

Women in Security

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On International Women’s Day, GISF celebrates the role of women in NGO security risk management. Despite the fact that security has historically been a male-dominated sector, and in many ways continues to be so, the number of women working in security is by no means negligible nor are the contributions of women to the sector hard to discern. GISF has asked its network of female colleagues who work in NGO security risk management to share some of their experiences with us and the following blog is a reflection of what they have shared.

The tides are changing

I remember walking into rooms full of men and being asked at the door “You sure you’re in the right meeting?” Of course, a petite South Asian woman was not expected to head staff security back in the day! But today, we have successfully and so remarkably influenced the way our leadership and feminism is understood and respected.” (Javeria Ayaz Malik – International Security Advisor at ActionAid International)

A lot of female colleagues reflected on what it was like when they first started in security and attended meetings where they were the only woman in a room full of men:

“Being a woman in security can be an opportunity. You are at a security meeting in a room full of middle aged white men. They start to talk to you because you are a woman – they stay because they discover you do know what you are talking about!”

While security risk management may be perceived as a ‘boys club’, it is far from that. Today, women are increasingly leading teams in all NGO operating contexts, from field level to headquarters. Some of the major bodies looking at security were co-founded or are under female leadership: Insecurity Insight, Humanitarian Outcomes and GISF itself. With some of the most senior security positions in major NGOs currently headed by women: Oxfam, ActionAid International, Tearfund, Action Contre la Faim, Canadian Red Cross, Terre des Hommes, Handicap International, Première Urgence Internationale and Cordaid, to name but a few. The ACT Alliance Safety and Security Community of Practice have elected for the first time a female chairperson.

Marieke van Weerden, Director of Safety and Security at VSO International, is proud of the fact that two-thirds of the security focal points in VSO country offices are women.

Like in other industries, women joining a male-dominated sector face challenges. One colleague recalls the challenge of not starting at the same level or with the same respect as male counterparts, but with time her contributions were appreciated by her male colleagues.

Efforts are underway to move away from ‘gender-oriented’ work to placing greater value on contributions. As one colleague puts it:

“What makes me an effective woman in security management is my passion for the work and the people who I do it for, my family, my friends and my colleagues, and most all of those whose perceptions I can change. As a woman, I am proud to be a part of this profession and even more so of the growing number of women who are joining the profession, balancing families and changing perceptions. Female or male, security is a challenging life choice and all are appreciated.”

EISF has endeavoured to ensure that its work has a balanced gender perspective. And part of this, as a colleague noted, involves “fostering peer support among security specialists and…provid(ing) a platform for women in the sector to be more visible.”

Why having women in security is important

The benefits of more women working in NGO security risk management are myriad. The involvement of women in NGO security has led to a more inclusive and holistic approach, with women’s concerns heard and addressed, says Rebecca Maudling, Company Director at International Location Safety.

EISF and colleagues have seen women in security take the conversation to a new level, identifying that insecurity can come from within as well as outside the organisation itself and that NGO staff members’ individual characteristics and emotions play a part in their security: from the role stress can play in bad security decision-making to how gender and gender identity can affect an individual’s security in given contexts.

“Just over 10 years ago, there were only a few of us women in security – I was often greeted with eyebrows raised…and then confusion when they would find out I was not ex-military or ex-police. It has been a challenging journey in which I would often be purposefully deployed to deal with the most difficult and sensitive security situations. I believe it is because security in our sector has always been gendered, meaning it is about people and how we relate to and understand each other.” (Christine Persaud)

Aid workers are a diverse group and the people we aim to help in some of the most challenging contexts in the world are also diverse. Two female colleagues recall that as women they have had access to both male and female community members and are often invited to join conversations with these groups, which has been critical to achieving durable outcomes. Some women in security have excellent soft skills, which are extremely important in NGO security risk management and in achieving access, especially within organisations that rely on acceptance as a primary security strategy.

We should also not forget our own staff:

Many of our national field staff are women focused on delivery of our programme objectives, in often difficult and insecure contexts. Such staff put into daily practice our security management frameworks, approaches and methodologies and we need to constantly bear them in mind.

Thanks to the contributions of women in security, more discussions are taking place on the risks that predominantly (although not exclusively) affect women, such as sexual harassment, aggression and assault. This allows aid staff, security advisors and survivors to have honest discussions about how to manage these events, placing the well-being of those affected at the forefront of NGO efforts. Female-led organisations such as Insecurity Insight and Report the Abuse have reported in the past, and more recently, that sexual violence against aid workers is a serious concern that needs to be addressed by NGOs.

Many women working in NGO security risk management have seen their presence appreciated by their colleagues. Their experience has shown that female staff find it easier to express their fears, anxieties and responses to incidents, which allows the organisation to better ensure staff security and thereby meet their duty of care. The benefits of women in security positions, however, does not only extend to women, but to male staff as well:

“Working as a security trainer, concentrating on sexual aggression, trauma and well-being is a privileged position to be in. It feels like taking your place at the table, looking up and seeing a mixture of surprise, acceptance and the odd nod from assorted people present. It is so satisfying when both men and women can share their thoughts, feelings and concerns about their own security and their experiences in the field, knowing that you, as a woman have ‘been there’ and see it all entirely from their own perspective. I’m so grateful for that opportunity.”

The next generation of women in security

Many female colleagues have noted the remarkable change over the last decade, not only in the numbers of women working in NGO security risk management but in the way their presence and contributions are valued by male and female co-workers. As one colleague puts it,

“There is a hunger for diversity of perspective and experience in the security management sector. This is demonstrated in the fact that international, regional and national staff regularly express their excitement that our organisation has a woman leading on safety and security management! They often say they want to see more!”

The landscape, however, does not appear completely positive for women trying to enter the security sector as one of our male security colleagues reflects. He has worked with very efficient female security focal points who feel uncomfortable attending security coordination meetings at field office level due to the gender imbalance. Equally, he has experienced many of his female co-workers struggling to find work within the NGO security sector, despite their strong security risk management skills. Our colleague expresses his frustration at this and urges people to acknowledge the contributions women can make as security advisors or managers.

Despite these challenges, one veteran from the security field has a message for the younger generation of women in security:

“When I joined my organization as global security adviser, I quickly came to know that in fact there are many women working in this field of work, and they are making a difference. Women should not feel discouraged to apply for NGO security positions.”

The contributions of the women who started in this sector years ago have not gone unnoticed by the younger generation of women entering the field of NGO security risk management:

“At first I was apprehensive about entering a male-dominated field of work but thanks to the efforts of my female predecessors to debunk gender preconceptions, my experience has been extremely positive, with women’s input deemed insightful and valuable by male colleagues as we suggest new ways to overcome operational security challenges.”


“My preconceptions have been smashed so many times. Women can lead, and are leading in security risk management. As someone who is starting out in this sector, it is reassuring and inspiring to see.”


As a young woman in what has traditionally been a man’s world of security, I’m encouraged that in my time women’s contribution to security in the NGO community is now not just acknowledged but celebrated.

There is much more that needs to be done to obtain a more equitable gender balance in the field of NGO security risk management, but the groundwork has been laid for an improved approach to security risk management within the aid sector. This is thanks to the efforts of those women who are working within security despite the challenges they have faced as well as the men who have welcomed and encouraged the greater participation of women in the field of security.

“The reason that I get up in the morning is to support women as they enable themselves to do their jobs, their missions and live their lives in the field (where they’re needed and where they should be), only in a safer environment than that which they/we currently experience.” 

The contributions of women to security cannot be celebrated enough. So when you’re the only woman in a room full of men, remember that, as one colleague excellently put it, the participation of women in security is not measured in numbers but in the quality of our contributions to the profession of security.


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