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Published: March 8, 2021

Women, Security & Covid-19 – challenges and opportunities in the humanitarian space

By: Chiara Jancke

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For this year’s International Women’s Day, GISF Research and Communications Assistant Chiara Jancke spoke with three women who work on security risk management (SRM) to explore how the pandemic has impacted women's lives and work in the sector. While emphasising the various challenges that the pandemic generated for NGO security and women overall, interviewees remained hopeful about the possible opportunities that arose for women during this crisis. 

Elodie Leroy Le Moigne is Plan International’s Global Security Advisor, and Adèle Bakpatina is a Security Focal Point at Plan International Togo. Joana Costa works at The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation (woman to woman) as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Safety and Security Advisor. In three separate interviews, they reflected on their work and experience during the pandemic.

The pandemic’s effect on women

Countless studies have pointed towards women’s disproportionate bearing of the pandemic’s social, economic, and psychological costs.

In Togo, Adèle observes that many women face worsening socio-economic conditions due to Covid-19. This is especially visible in the agricultural sector, where women find themselves unable to sell their produce in different towns. Fears and stigma related to the virus further discourage many women from accessing essential social and health services.

‘Many women have stopped using health services due to fears of being infected with the virus. This can be considered a curse and lead to stigmatisation since people assume that you must have sinned.’

Fitting within the worldwide surges in gender-based violence (GBV) following Covid-19 lockdowns, Adèle also sees heightened domestic violence in Togo.

‘Women have faced an increased vulnerability to gender-based violence. Factors such as overcrowding in households and the decline of incomes have exacerbated tensions in households. Several organisations have reported an escalation in domestic violence cases, including sexual abuse, beatings, and marital rape. Young girls have been particularly exposed to the risk of incest and sexual violence.’

Joana Costa witnesses similar trends in environments struck by structural violence in the MENA region. Simultaneously, confinement and movement restrictions narrow women’s abilities to access protection services. Looking at Covid-19’s impact on conflict areas such as Syria, she notes:

‘In conflict areas when allowed to operate, women aid workers and women rights defenders were more exposed to abuse when interacting with unprofessional security forces, or non-state armed groups.’

Work as an SRM professional during Covid-19

Given their safety and security responsibilities, Adèle, Elodie, and Joana address the above issues in their work while tackling their own personal challenges during the pandemic.

Adèle balances her family caring responsibilities with being a Security Focal Point. To monitor safety procedures at the office and access a reliable internet connection, Adèle has to be present in the office a few days a week. However, this also means that with schools being closed, her children are left at home, requiring her to check in on them through calls from the office regularly.

Despite these personal challenges, Adèle works tirelessly to support women in her organisation and counteract GBV trends.

‘Together with the gender advisor, I deliver presentations for staff on what to do when they face gender-based violence, how to report abuse, and what child protection mechanisms are in place. […] Throughout this time, female staff have been encouraging each other to support one another.’

Joana says that one of the biggest challenges during lockdown is maintaining strong interpersonal relations with her colleagues to ensure her personal wellbeing and those of staff. She explains that keeping these connections is crucial to being a good security manager, as wellbeing directly affects operations’ security.

‘One of the biggest challenges we’ve been looking to address as an organisation is the wellbeing of our staff and partners. If you suffer from anxiety and stress, it directly impacts your sense of security awareness that can put you at a higher risk threshold. Consequently, we’ve been working on an approach of integrated security and wellbeing.’

Elodie reminds us of the need to be mindful of the diverse needs and realities of the staff she supports in different contexts. Having a young daughter at home herself, she explains the importance of setting an example:

‘When my daughter needs me, I consciously let others know that I need to go and take care of her. This is crucial to normalise it for women with family caring responsibilities to feel like they can do the same thing.’

‘The same simple principle applies to upholding working hours. Working late can present risks to women’s security. For example, women who cannot work from home might have to travel home after dark. Being on Zoom calls with male colleagues late at night could facilitate distrust at home in other contexts. I need to set an example in my position and finish work at the prescribed times so that other women feel comfortable doing the same.’

 Leveraging changes going forward

Nevertheless, the conditions and questions about work life balance and working from home brought about by the pandemic can generate new opportunities for women to enter the security sector.

Joana notes that ‘providing staff with a degree of schedule flexibility can benefit women with dependents and especially single mothers.’

She further explains that some women had increased access to online training during the pandemic: ‘remote working made investment in remote capacity development more relevant than ever, which opens opportunities for potential female talent.’

Elodie explains that by conducting trainings online, more female staff were able to join trainings and could be reached.

Adèle’s path into security reaffirms the important role that trainings play in bringing more women into security roles.

‘I had no background in security, but I got trained in the field. These trainings triggered my passion for security, and ever since, I have, for example, been delivering Hostile Environment Awareness Trainings (HEAT) in Togo. Now, when I do these trainings, often other women come up to me, asking me how they can also become trainers. Being visible is important, as well as sharing your experiences and encouraging women to apply for such positions.’

Why we need more women in SRM roles

 When asked why more women should be more involved in SRM, Adèle, Joana, and Elodie identify women’s experiences as crucial to diversifying security and making it more inclusive.

If the opportunity is given to us, we will be able to change many things in the security sector,’ emphasises Adèle.

Joana adds: ‘the natural trend of security units today is to look at operational and contextual challenges rather than considering the risks women face when operating in culturally conservative and male dominated power structures. Women can provide gendered lenses to NGO security which is not only advantageous from a security awareness and organisational development standpoint but for the entire the aid sector.’

Elodie links women’s personal experiences to their ability to be effective and inclusive security managers.

‘Women face specific risks growing up, are aware of them but also know what it feels like not to have them addressed. Hence, they can relate more to colleagues with diverse profiles.’

Talking about the importance of effectively managing all staff’s security, she views security as an interconnected system.

Security as a whole is an ecosystem. If one part of the system is at risk, the entire system is. But we are yet to have a security system that promotes security capacity building that is fit for all staff’s purpose in their diversity.’

Still, Elodie believes that this is a crucial turning point for the sector as a whole.

Covid-19 has changed many things. Everybody is equally far away from each other today, and our connections to each other are different. This pushes us to adopt a different perspective and to listen to each other more. Voices stressing the importance of inclusivity, diversity and equality in the sector have gotten louder, and the pandemic is a key moment to adopt and consolidate these changes.’









Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles

This GISF research paper aims to better understand what challenges aid organisations face in relation to managing the security of aid workers while being mindful of their diversity.

Managing Sexual Violence Against Aid Workers: prevention, preparedness, response and aftercare

This GISF guide aims to support aid agencies in preventing, being prepared for and responding to incidents of sexual violence against their staff. It is intended as a good practice guide to help strengthen existing processes and support organisations as they set up their own protocols.

Adopting an inclusive approach to aid worker security risk management in the COVID-19 era

In 2018, GISF (then EISF) published a research paper entitled ‘Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles’. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has made an unprecedented impact on the way we work, affecting partnerships, programmes and headquarters offices. Taking the key lessons of the paper, this blog piece explores some of the inclusive considerations that security risk managers might make at this time.

Global 2020