When will we start to address the security of aid workers through a gendered lens?

This guest post is by Dr Alice Gritti. Alice holds a PhD in social psychology from the University of Milano-Bicocca. Her research focuses on gender studies and international aid workers. She arrived at the University of Edinburgh as a visiting researcher in 2013.

It has already been a month since the kidnapping of two female Italian aid workers in Syria last August. It was striking how the media reported the news of Greta and Vanessa, and how the world of social and the industry insiders commented on it. Before that of a respectful silence, it took the shape of a blame game, with only a few speaking up in defence of the two aid workers, admiring and sharing their values​​, while many were blaming the two with judgemental comments, and often sexist. Yes, of course. The two at issue are indeed “two girls”, and their female identity was what the “accusers” mostly made relevant in their notes: “two young girls”, “very young and inexperienced”, “naïve”, “the blonde and the brunette”, “they should have played with Barbie when they were little instead of playing at the little humanitarians”, and so on.

Greta Ramelli (L) and Vanessa Marzullo (R). Source: ANSA.it

Greta Ramelli (L) and Vanessa Marzullo (R). Source: ANSA.it

A victim-blaming attitude well-known to gender experts, a phenomenon that usually takes place when the victim is a woman, and that spans from the victim of rape (“Well, if you go out scantily clad …”) to the victim of kidnap (“Well, if you play the humanitarian instead of playing with dolls…”), attributing to her all the responsibility of the crime (“… you ask for it!”). Comments that reproduce a traditionalist gender ideology, establishing which roles and behaviours are allowed for a female and which are not. A plethora of critiques that we wouldn’t have found if the aid workers kidnapped had been male.

Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Not only Greta and Vanessa were found “guilty”, but even their parents, accordingly to a very Italian attitude that sees parents as always accountable for the actions of their children, and that at the same time, sees the children as an extension of their parents and of their will. A condemnatory context, anything but empathic, that led Vanessa’s father to release two short statements (here, and here) – “I tried to persuade her not to go” – in which, in addition to making a plea, he tried to defend himself from some kind of blame he doesn’t have.

In a psychosocial research project [Gritti, A. (2014) Sequential MCA approach to aid worker’s talk: The interactional negotiation of gender identity. PhD thesis, the University of Milano-Bicocca], we contacted more than 200 aid workers: men and women, of different ages, with different levels of experience, working for a range of aid and development organizations including private, government run and funded, UN agencies or departments, as well as international and national NGOs, in both development and emergency contexts in a wide range of countries. One of the questions focused on safety and security. Half respondents declared to have experienced dangerous situations (either working in development or in relief); these were commonly associated with assaults (“assaulted with a deadly weapon, theft, walking alone in hazardous areas without protection”), sexual harassment (“harassed several times by local authority and local staff”), theft, banditry, ambushes, compound raids, riots (“compound attack, riots in villages, evacuation due to kidnapping threats”; “urban riots with throwing of stones on the cars, petty thievery, hearing shooting on the street etc.”), revolutions, corruption. Participants reported having to deal with the risks of working in war contexts (“rockets, Improvised Explosive Device-IED”; “attacks, suicide bombs”; “gunfights, bombings”; “mine fields, shelling, shootings, kidnapping, diseases, explosions, flooding”), and also listed dangerous environmental conditions such as earthquakes, disasters, flooding and sand storms.


Such risks were accepted as part of the “normal” challenges usually faced by humanitarian and development workers and were often described in a “wrong place, wrong time” scenario. Our participants recognised that security risks are different for women and men, but, in our research, we had found no evidence of security protocols that included these specificities. Indeed, despite most aid organisations claiming to be gender sensitive, there is a paucity of gendered data on international aid workers, with the exception of two security guidelines [Gaul et al. 2006; Wille and Fast 2011]. According to our results, aid workers’ security seems to be treated as an individual matter and not as an organisational one; security protocols are scarce, often informal, and when they come from the organisations they do not seem to address this issue from a gender perspective.

We hope that Greta and Vanessa will be soon released and that more efforts will be made in order to address aid workers’ security through a gendered lens, so that the “blaming the victims” will leave space to taking full responsibility of the security of men and women working in aid.

Contact: a.gritti4@campus.unimib.it

Profile: http://www.psicologia.unimib.it/03_persone/scheda_personale.php?personId=496

Referenced works:

Gritti, A. (2014) Sequential MCA approach to aid worker’s talk: The interactional negotiation of gender identity. Tesi di dottorato, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca.

Gaul, A., Keegan, M., Lawrence, M., and Ramos M.L. (2006). NGO security: Does gender matter? Save the Children, USA. Retrieved from http://acceptanceresearch.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/ngo-security-does-gender-matter.pdf

Wille, C., and Fast, L. (2011). Aid, gender and security: The gendered nature of security events affecting aid workers and aid delivery – security facts for humanitarian aid agencies. Insecurity Insight. Retrieved from http://www.insecurityinsight.org/files/Security%20Facts%202%20Gender.pdf