Keeping aid workers safe in India

A busy street in Kolkata, India. An Irish aid volunteer in the country was allegedly sexually assaulted on the night of her 21st birthday. Photo by: Phil Parsons / CC BY-NC-SA

After the recent alleged rape of an Irish aid volunteer in India, are aid workers, especially females, safe there?

The woman working as a volunteer for the Missionaries of Charity according to the Irish Examiner  reportedly attempted suicide this week after being sexually assaulted in Kolkata on the night of her 21st birthday.

Her case adds to a long list of incidents of violence against aid workers around the world: Bombing, attacks, threats of kidnapping, murder, manslaughter. While this latest crime may be an isolated incident, it is particularly worrying given the high number of rape cases in India, up to 600 last year in New Delhi alone.

Some of the aid organizations Devex has spoken to said they have “very strict” safety measures for their women volunteers and staff members. Ratna Viswanathan, executive director of VSO India, explained they have clear guidelines on what women employees can and shouldn’t do.

For international volunteers, these guidelines are set in modules containing safety, security and cultural contexts given to them prior to deployment, including an orientation on appropriate clothing and behavior. A 24-hour dedicated emergency mobile number for volunteer safety is also provided.

“I underwent a comprehensive pre-departure training and in-country orientation that included modules relating to sexual harassment, rape, how to avoid and respond to potential violence and many security tips,” VSO volunteer Arlene Galvez shared with Devex. She added that safety “is a very relative term. Not knowing the local language and laws I feel at risk, however, complying with all precautionary measures like not going out alone in the night, I know I am safe.”

Save the Children India seem to have similar measures in place: CEO Thomas Chandy told Devex that the organization provides every foreign worker a “thorough security briefing,” making them aware of potential dangers when visiting a particular project area.

“We encourage our women aid workers to travel in groups besides designating an emergency contact for every aid worker and urge them to exercise caution when stepping out alone,” he said.

Violence against women

It’s been almost six months since the the gang-rape of a 23-year-old-girl in New Delhi led to a huge local and international outcry.

Many argue it was a tipping point to the cruel reality of sexual harassment in a still largely patriarchal society. It sparked massive street protests and government policy changes.

India has passed since then several laws aimed at curbing such violence, including the introduction of death penalty in cases where rape led to the death of the victim, a measure several organizations are against.

But the impact of all these policy changes meant to make India’s streets safer for women remains to be seen, according to the aid groups consulted by Devex.

VSO India’s CEO said such incidents continue to hog headlines “almost daily” across the country: “It’s too soon to tell and there seems to be little effect in terms of curbing such violence.”

The organization’s program coordinator Pallavi Kaushal noted the incident has somehow caused an increase in awareness in India “while giving a sense of empowerment to the women negotiating the city.”

“People today are more likely to come to the aid of a person. However, this does not necessarily imply that country’s attitude towards violence against women has changed,” added Kaushal.

Are you an aid worker in India? What precautions are you taking to keep yourself safe? What tips have you got for other aid workers planning to work in the country? Share your thoughts below.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.