The #metoo movement put some lights on sexal harrassment and abuses, in the street, at home, at work… and in a number of sectors: untertainment industry, journalism, politics… Humanitarian sector is not set apart. I know several female expatriates who have been victims while on mission in the field. I wanted to let one of them tell her story because I believe talking about it openely is not only good for her personally but could also help other victims and raise awareness in the whole humanitarian community.
It was my first expat assignment with an NGO and I was working in HR. I became fast friends with a colleague – he was a welcome addition to the team, young, fun, adventurous. Someone to do things with, whereas my other colleagues didn’t want to go out. So we spent a lot of time together at first, and then he made it clear he wanted more than a friendship but I just wasn’t attracted to him in that way. I told him, and he didn’t respond well. He was upset, he couldn’t understand why. Why all nice guys like him were always picked last – in his mind, it was my fault. It became clear to me he had a lot of other issues going on – a history of mental instability, severe depression and past suicide attempts. It started to weigh on my, and at one point, I was tired of it. I couldn’t keep justifying my decision to not want to be with him, and I couldn’t keep being made to feel bad about it. I wasn’t trained to deal with his mental health issues, and it started to scare me – to the point that I started locking my bedroom door at night. For 2 months, he made consistent and persistent unwelcome advances – constantly asking to talk, inappropriate late night phone calls and text messages (likely after drinking). He continued to blame me, was insistent and became hostile toward me for having rejected him. I was uncomfortable, and at a certain point started feeling unsafe.
Mostly I didn’t talk about it. I tried to pretend everything was fine. I was guilty. I felt I needed to respect his privacy and the HR rules of confidentiality. I was uncomfortable talking about my personal life with my boss, and also knew how busy he was dealing with what I considered “more important things”. My family and friends back home couldn’t fully understand what it was like to live and work in that situation every day. I found some comfort in a friend from another NGO where I felt I could talk about it while still respecting his confidentiality.
It was heavy, and to bare it alone was lonely. I worried about him constantly and at the same time hated being around him, hated seeing him in the office. But I had to. I had to work with him every day.
It came to a final point one night – he had been drinking, we got in a fight, and it ended with him sending me a message hinting at taking his life, telling me not to worry, “it wasn’t my fault”. I realized at that point that he needed serious help, and so did I. If something happened to him I wouldn’t be able to handle it – I would never be the same again. So I raised the alarms – I told my boss, I launched a process with HR in HQ, and told him that I was doing it. Immediately HQ HR took control – I was told the steps to take, the decisions that would be taken, how they’d be communicated. It was difficult, but it was good to have an action plan, support, someone to take over in the decision making. He left the mission, but it didn’t end – I still received hurtful emails and threats of legal action. They remained supportive to me – the CD, my HQ advisor, the HR director – keeping me updated to a certain degree, but not involving me in the process, which was a relief.
I think sexual harassment is complicated in the humanitarian sector, when our professional lives and personal lives are so intertwined. There is no line between what happens in the work place and out, because it is one in the same. And at the same time, I think for many people, certainly me, and perhaps especially for women, it’s hard to bring the personal life into the professional space. To add my “personal” issues to the workload of my boss, HR, the Country Director, etc. made me uncomfortable, and the issues I had seemed small in comparison. For me, and maybe for others, it can somehow seem easier to suffer ourselves, rather than make the abuser feel uncomfortable or the CD or HR – easier to think about what we could have done differently, how our words or actions contributed to what happened. Or easier to try to ignore it.
Sexual harassment and other cases have, in some ways become the norm in the humanitarian sector – and they come in many different forms. It’s amazing what you will hear from female colleagues when you start talking about it – I really don’t think I have met one female humanitarian worker who has not personally dealt with it in some way. It’s important now that we normalize the other side of the issue – “normalize” how we deal with these kind of situations – normalize reporting mechanisms, normalize the reporting itself, normalize speaking up against your abuser, normalize talking about it with your peers, normalize the actions taken after reporting. “Normalizing” is easy to say, but in reality means policy and procedure development, training, sensitization, budget allocations, etc. From an HR point of view, these policies and procedures are crucial – it’s very difficult to expect HR professionals to analyze reports, investigate, take decisions/actions in the absence of clear guidelines. Its complicated for all HR aspects, but especially for such sensitive issues.