An aid worker from the local Mona Relief charity comforts a woman at a shelter where she lives in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo by: REUTERS / Khaled Abdullah

UNITED NATIONS — As attacks on humanitarian aid workers rise, organizations should reflect on their internal practices that could make women especially vulnerable, according to Ursula Mueller, deputy emergency relief coordinator at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“Humanitarian aid work has become increasingly more dangerous. Risks and insecurity in working environments have different impacts on men and women. There is evidence that women are more likely to experience assaults or sexual violence,” Mueller told Devex in an interview on Monday following a press briefing.  

“We need to have more targeted measures and also prepare and train women.”

— Ursula Mueller, deputy emergency relief coordinator, U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

There is a need for more investment into the skills of humanitarian workers to negotiate with nonstate armed actors and other groups, according to Mueller. For women, it can be especially tricky to negotiate with armed male groups or local leaders in certain cultures where women are not often in positions of power in public spaces, for example.

Mueller spoke at the United Nations on World Humanitarian Day, which marks the 16th anniversary of the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, where a car bombing killed at least 22 aid workers, including the U.N. special representative of Iraq. Since then, there have been more than 4,500 attacks on aid workers, according to Mueller.

Syria, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the deadliest places to be an aid worker, according to an analysis by CARE International published this week.

A recent OCHA survey among 1,000 female humanitarians in 115 countries showed that one of the biggest challenges to women humanitarian’s work is harassment and exposure to sexual violence, Mueller told Devex. There is no gender-disaggregated data that shows whether women aid workers are attacked more than men, Mueller said.

“We have started to have more disaggregated data, but evidence shows that when women have security incidents, quite a large percentage is with sexual violence. We just started to collect this disaggregated data,” she explained. “We need to have more targeted measures and also prepare and train women.”

Women make up approximately 43% of the more than half a million aid workers working on humanitarian relief programs, according to Abby Stoddard, partner of the independent research organization Humanitarian Outcomes. Male aid workers face attack rates three to six times higher than women, but women face particular challenges and risks, Stoddard told Devex.

“Women are slightly more likely to be kidnapped and to face bodily assault than male aid workers. They also have risks men do not face, such as sexual violence within their organizations,” Stoddard said.

The risks can extend to women working in their own communities: “For national aid workers who work in places where the culture disapproves of women working and traveling outside the home, they face risks from their own communities and families sometimes,” Stoddard said.  

The second worst year for aid worker security was documented in 2018, when 405 aid workers were affected by major violence, and 131 aid workers were killed, according to the “Aid Worker Security 2019 Report,” published by Humanitarian Outcomes in July.  The data is likely an underestimate, however, due to limited reporting of violence against aid workers, Stoddard said.

The rise of complex conflicts with nonstate armed actors has contributed to the rise of aid worker attacks, Stoddard said. More training on direct engagement with these actors is needed, she explained.

“The real problem is how to negotiate with non-state armed actors who actually see aid organizations as the agents of their enemies and feel they have legitimate reasons to attack them,” Stoddard explained. “To negotiate with these kinds of actors you really need staff that is not just trained to ... not just to state the principles of humanitarian law and to expect it to be respected. But to focus on the local context and what these actors want, frankly.”

Civil and military coordination and community engagement are necessary, Mueller said. Given cultural sensitivities, it can also be a matter of how an aid workers project themselves and understand the local context.

“But it is also the culture amongst the international aid community that needs to be addressed,” Mueller said.

Mueller reflected on speaking with women who work as senior humanitarian aid coordinators who say they still regularly need to make a case to provide their “credentials and their professionalism.” Humanitarian responses will not be as effective if women are not included in its development and delivery, she explained.

“There needs to be better recognition of the contribution women make, the unique expertise they have, the unique perspectives they bring to humanitarian work,” Mueller said.

They are professionals, standing their ground as doctors, in logistics, in needs assessment methodology, in negotiating with governments, with various groups,”  Mueller continued. “This is an opportunity on World Humanitarian Day to highlight women aid workers as professionals.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.