Kashmir earthquake, gender and security

Lucy Morris has written a post for the blog this week. It is an important insight in to a time when reflecting on how the way in which policies and procedures were realized made a big difference to the impact that these have on staff members.

Lucy Morris has worked on humanitarian response and development programmes across Africa, Asia and CEE/CIS countries for the past 15 years. She has spent time working in DRC, Kenya, Senegal, Pakistan and the UK with UN/INGOs/national organisations, and her areas of expertise include: gender, children’s participation, child protection, partnership and faith-based work.


Imagine that there’s been a massive earthquake in northern Pakistan.  Imagine that it’s your job to ensure that help gets to where it’s most needed, and that you need to recruit new staff to deliver a large scale relief/rehabilitation programme.  Imagine that security starts to deteriorate, but people still need help, and it’s up to you to ensure the safety and security of your staff and project assets.  What would you do?

Security solutions are often presented in the form of ex-military security advisors, razor wire and radios.  Yet there’s a softer-side to security management too.  And in north western Pakistan, where women are not usually allowed to leave their villages unaccompanied let alone work for INGOs, for these brave and forward-thinking women and their families, seemingly small things like the wrong male/female staff seating arrangements within a vehicle, can have extremely serious consequences.

After the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, I spent 5 years travelling back and forth between the UK and an area formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan in my then role as Programme Officer for a Catholic INGO, working closely with our national counterpart’s earthquake response programme as ‘facilitating partner’. One of the most important things that I learnt during that time was the importance of ensuring that security arrangements were gender sensitive i.e. that they reflected the different vulnerabilities and needs of both men and women.

As a Christian organisation operating within a new and highly conservative Muslim area of Pakistan, security and cultural sensitivity were prioritised from day one, and initially there was one national male Security Focal Point.  However, security became an increasing concern in 2008 following the attacks against Plan’s nearby office in Mansehra, and later an international (male) security advisor joined on a short-term basis to help strengthen security systems.  Despite installing CCTV and varying the pick up times, our female staff still seemed jittery, and without them it was impossible to access big sections of the female population. Not only was the environment highly conservative to begin with, but risks for females working for NGOs increased as a result of military action that pushed extremist radicals into remote areas of NWFP, and tragically, the World Vision field office in Oghi Tesil was deliberately bombed by terrorist radicals (in 2010) killing 7 including 2 female staff.

Good female staff were like gold-dust, but they were not reassured by the new security measures, and there were urgent exchanges about how they would be perceived if they had to stay overnight somewhere unaccompanied for work.  In northern Pakistan, a woman travelling alone at night or not covering her body in the ‘traditional’ way would become a target for an attack, and instead of being supported, victims of such an attacks were themselves blamed.  As a result, the female staff’s primary concern was linked to reputational damage and loss of personal and associated family honour. As one ex-colleague put it “When women work with male staff they need protection even inside the office, because if they talk with male colleagues freely for more than 5 minutes without calling them ‘bhai’ or brother, other colleagues will think that they are having an affair.”  Yet these concerns and were not making it onto the agenda of management meetings or into security plans.

A simple way of addressing this was by introducing a designated female Security Focal point in addition to the male one, so that female staff would feel comfortable raising their concerns in a structured way, and these concerns could then taken up by management.  Sometimes these concerns related to overnight field visits and to the need for separate male/female accommodation, other times they related to drop offs for female staff after work, or the behaviour of male colleagues; but what was key was they felt able to voice them and that they could be addressed quickly and discreetly, meaning that female staff were protected from accusations of ‘improper behaviour.’ As an ex-colleague put it: “If a female staff member is comfortable within the office environment and with her colleagues, she will be confident doing field visits as well.”  All staff were trained on the security guidelines and how to report security issues by using a special reporting form, and female staff could give their completed forms to the female Security Focal point who then shared a summary during management meetings. This approach was easy to introduce, partly as a result of a supportive female Earthquake Response Coordinator and male Security Focal Point, but was initially overlooked.

What was also important was that this arrangement formed part of a wider gender policy and strategy for the earthquake response programme, to ensure that both the direct programme work but also the organisation’s own policies and culture took account of the differing needs of men and women.  The gender policy and strategy was developed by national consultants with input from staff, and all of the staff then received basic gender training (UNDP example available here), some of whom then formed part of a cross-organisational gender network which was established to monitor progress against the strategy.  (The Gender and Development network and  ELDIS are useful resources for more information about ‘gender-mainstreaming.’)

Although there was initially a lot of resistance to women working with NGOs in northern Pakistan, as more and more women joined and started to bring home regular salaries, local mind sets shifted, and many of the women themselves started to dream of going to University and of having a career. Benazir Bhutto defined empowerment as “the right to be independent; to be educated; to have choices in life…to have the opportunity to select a productive career; to own property; to participate in business; to flourish in the market place,” and she once said “I dream of a Pakistan in which women contribute to their full potential.”   In the often chaotic environment of the aid and development market place, what will you do to ensure that women can participate and flourish?

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2 Responses to Kashmir earthquake, gender and security

  1. Shaz Jameson says:

    Incredible insight. Thank you for sharing Lucy. Have these positive changes been lasting?

  2. Lucy Morris says:

    You’re welcome, thanks Shaz. The last time I was in Pakistan was in 2010, so I can’t speak personally but an ex-colleague from the region told me that the positive changes have continued to be felt. It would be really interesting to see how things have changed in relation to girls aspirations (and parent’s aspirations for their kids) a generation later though, as I suspect that this will be the real test…

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