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Wed. October 04, 2023
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Foreign Civilian Women Working In War Zones: The Good, Bad and Ugly


While there has been much focus on military women deployed to war zones, little attention has been paid to their foreign civilian counterparts.  These women operate in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan on behalf of government agencies, private entities, and non-profit organizations.  We hear about them traveling to dangerous places and getting injured or killed but not about their daily lives. 

With the growing rate of females joining the workforce over the last fifty years, more are going to places where once it would have been rare.  Still the professional field in war zones is dominated by men.  Amid the politics of being severely outnumbered and the pressures of dangerous surroundings, these women face sexual tension, harassment and marginalization beyond what unfolds in a normal work environment --- most of which remain unreported.  Moreover, a slew of unforeseen gender-related challenges arise.  Adding the complications of functioning within an unfamiliar culture, language and religion, life was not only difficult and trying but curious and startling.

In 2010 I went to Baghdad, Iraq as an instructor for a U.S. government funded educational program. Upon arrival at a small compound inside the International Zone (IZ), I was immediately warned by a foreign woman who showed me to my trailer with, “You should stick close to your room and the office.  Don’t wander down other walkways.  All those rooms are occupied by men and they haven’t seen their wives for a while.” The compound housed about five women and approximately 40 men.

From the start it was apparent there were problems, some stemming from women themselves.   Many in the IZ were given favors and catered to by their male colleagues.  Men paid for meals, offered rides to shops and invitations to bars.  Extramarital affairs took place where desire and convenience allowed.  Some women took advantage of their sexual power and used it to the detriment of others.  Two at our compound repeatedly allowed unauthorized male guests to overnight, compromising everyone’s security.   One even became engaged to an Iraqi man who spoke rudimentary English and was twenty years her junior.  She spoke no Arabic nor was she Muslim.  After having given him large amounts of her own money to use in persuading a local judge to permit the marriage, she was allegedly rejected by his family on cultural and religious grounds.  The man and money were never seen again.  This caused her great anguish and absences from work, while the team suffered from lower productivity. 

As the gender dynamics became more intense the locals were there to witness. 

Loud shouting came from the hall one day while I was teaching a seminar to Iraqi government officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the majority of whom were men.  A male colleague was berating a female on a work-related issue.  In his rage he used pejorative language to name and demean her private body parts. Small-framed with nowhere to run inside the cramp compound, she stood frozen.  Everyone in my class heard him.   Embarrassed beyond speech I sat quietly.  Finally one of the male Iraqis looked at me and said gravely, “You are a woman too.  I must apologize for him because he has insulted all women.” 

As I moved to another war zone, new gender issues arose. 

Freshly arrived in Afghanistan a year later on a rule of law mission I was being issued a bullet-proof vest, one that was too large, clumsy and ill-fitting.   When I asked for a smaller size, stating that my measurements had been solicited by and provided to our employer months ago, the security officer shrugged reiterating this was a male dominated field.  Smaller sizes were not available.  Then as I settled into my office, which was shared with several men, music was played in the afternoons that contained derogatory sexual lyrics.  No one seemed bothered except me.  It was not until I spoke up that my colleagues remembered it was no longer an all-boys’ club.  

Then things got even more personal.  One day after a collegial conversation, quite unexpectedly, a coworker in Kabul asked if I wanted to be in an intimate “in-country” relationship with him.  Then as if to justify the proposition, he revealed that he was a married man but did not have anyone special in Afghanistan. Similarly months later in Kunduz province, a security manager after a work meeting asked if he could come to my room that evening.  When I inquired why, he stated that I should help shave his back.  Astounded, I suggested he find a man to assist him -- to which he quickly retorted he was homophobic. 

As the only female living and working in a remote camp in Kunduz with over 700 men, life was not easy. It was crucial that I not only be cautious and aware of my surroundings but professional and respectable at all times.  Daily I was sharing workspace, cafeterias, camp facilities and the gym with macho men sporting huge muscles and tattoos.  I walked into offices where guy-talk reigned, oaths were uttered and in one room, a nude centerfold was prominently displayed.  In one large compound meeting several men entered into a loud verbal altercation over security matters.  Absurdly, each time an expletive was used its speaker turned to me, said my name, apologized to me and continued with the swearing.  It was the most surreal combination of inclusion, crudity, and propriety. 

Despite the goals of promoting democracy, gender-equality and Afghan women empowerment some men did not know how to strategically include their female colleagues in programs.  In Kunduz one afternoon while I was putting together a long-awaited seminar for Afghan women, a male coworker stated to me that he would take care of all the arrangements himself, to include meeting with the female students.  He volunteered that all I should do was sit in the office and write reports.  He justified this by referring to his years of experience in Afghanistan and how well he understood local women.  Unfortunately in his desire to be in control, he failed to discern that the conservative nature of Afghan females caused them to be more at ease with foreign women than men whatever the men’s experience.

Nor did some male supervisors respect the professional boundaries between superiors and subordinates.  In 2000 I was in Kosovo during the Albanian-Serbian crisis when local secure housing for international staff was at a premium.  The acting chief of mission for an American non-profit organization used his position try to move a female subordinate into his house, instead of offering the empty room to a person who needed it.  She failed to share her boss’s romantic sentiment and already had a place to live.  He showered her with gifts and took out her to meals under the guise of being work-related.  Uncomfortable and pressured, she hurriedly finished her contract, refused a renewal and left the country.  This fruitless incident not only rankled office morale and cost the lady herself a job, but robbed the program of an experienced individual.

But international men were not the only ones who created difficulties for foreign women in war zones. The host of challenges women faced interacting with local men deserve books of their own.  I remember my daily walk inside the Kunduz camp for exercise attracted a lot of attention from the hundreds of Afghan police trainees who lived there.  No matter how conservatively I dressed, Afghan men would gather and stare.  This continued until a small crowd grew to an intimidating number.  A colleague expressed similar frustrations with the Afghan men at her camp in Herat.  Another in Mazar-i-Sharif voiced vexation about her local male staff, feeling she had to prove herself to them.  Though they were hired to promote rule of law and gender equality, some had problems with taking direction from a woman.

Yet there were positive sides to being an international female.  In Baghdad, Kabul and Kunduz, local women were willing to talk to me rather than to my male colleagues, sharing aspects of their daily lives.  In Baghdad, several Iraqi women invited me to their homes for dinner and one took me to a mosque for prayer. In Kabul, Afghan female attorneys stayed after classes to chat with me about their lives and work.  In Kunduz, the local women periodically attending our courses approached me and related their concerns about the lack of camp amenities for females rather than raising this with my male counterparts.  Being a foreign woman in a war zone, one was the go-to person for the local women, their communication line to the international community. 

Nor were all men problematic.   Many demonstrated intelligence, consideration and helpfulness. Memorable incidents include one in Kabul where an American male co-worker who, when I was new, asked to see the first aid kit I had just been issued.  After examining it he reached into his own kit, took out essential items and put them in mine because it was missing critical pieces.  Similarly a British male security officer in Kunduz, who observed that feminine hygiene products were not sold in the convenience store on our all-male compound, diplomatically asked if I needed assistance, saying he would obtain those items from elsewhere if needed.  In Iraq, an American contractor learning that I was a runner, troubled himself by signing me into the U.S. embassy’s gym daily as he had access and I did not.  Finally, the majority of local men employed by international entities in these venues faithfully performed their jobs as subject matter experts and support staff without giving trouble to their foreign female colleagues. 

Foreign civilian women working in war zones experience a wide variety of gender-related issues and problems, some a lot worse than others with many incidents going unreported.  To be fair, life for the men was not easy either as they had to balance security concerns, work pressures, a new culture, and long periods away from the family.  Yet inside offices of war torn countries where stress levels are high, danger is near, and one sex greatly outnumbers the other, sexual tension, harassment, discrimination and other gender-related disagreements are bound to happen.  With the lack of robust support systems nearby, such as a human resources department trained to deal with these issues, an ombudsman and or an inspector general office, foreign civilian women sparsely populated can end up feeling very vulnerable. 

Given the politics, the huge profits to be made, and the time it takes to recruit qualified individuals, entities operating in these venues are reluctant to terminate employees.  Many simply rotated the individual to a satellite office whenever there was a behavior problem instead of addressing the issue.   This leaves way for the offense to reoccur which lowered employee morale, especially women who saw their concerns continually ignored.  Some never spoke up as whistleblowing statues did not protect contractors whose contract need not be renewed.  Office productivity suffered as employees spent time harboring ill feelings instead of nurturing teamwork.   Eventually more women than men resigned, adding to the personnel cost of training and replacing them.  And ultimately, it subtracted from the international community’s credibility and success, particularly in its gender equality programs. 

While there is not one solution to this complex web of challenges surrounding foreign civilian women working in conflict-ridden countries, there are steps the international community can take to alleviate the known and repetitive concerns. 

First prior to deployment, detailed and accurate information must be provided about living and working conditions in the specific host country, not just a mere power point presentation about working in conflict areas in general.  In the pre-deployment trainings I attended the presentations were often generic, not country specific.  Moreover many of the presenters had never been to the host country and the information from those who had was outdated.  

Second, both men and women must be required to attend a training devoted to sexual harassment, discrimination and other known gender-related problems, making them more cognizant of these issues and how these can be exacerbated when one sex severely outnumbers the other.  This training should use examples from the field and must be required annually for those who stay beyond a year. 

Third, employers should have a robust hotline or support system for all employees who experience difficulties.  This system should allow the employee to remain anonymous if he or she wishes and should be one that has the power and authority to make changes if necessary.  From experience, oftentimes the trained persons assigned to deal with these matters or the human resources support needed was usually located in the home country, far away, in a different time zone, and unable to respond promptly if at all. 

Fourth, the pre-deployment security briefing needs to include discussions about the different ways a person can compromise everyone’s safety, including one’s personal relationships. 

Fifth, government agencies, organizations and private companies hiring women for these positions need to ensure that females are just as valued as males, affecting costs, morale and program results, and provide them with protective gear that actually fit.   

Finally and most importantly, managers need to be acutely aware that they set the example. Organizations should swiftly investigate and remove those supervisors who fail to follow and enforce rules, and those who use their positions to promote, condone or ignore unethical outcomes.  Moreover the funding sources of these programs, whether they are governmental or private, need to play a closer role in hiring, monitoring and evaluating.  Given the disadvantages of distance, time difference, and accessibility, problems in the field can last for months without discovery, particularly when the funding party is located in the home country and pays only periodic visits to the program.  Entities receiving these funds are not inclined to reveal internal problems as that might jeopardize their contracts.  Above all, organizations and their funding partners need to recognize that while a seemingly small incident in the field may not have big consequences, leaving it unaddressed will only pave the way for repetition and costlier repercussions later.

In countries beset with crisis, insurgency is only one of the challenges that foreign civilian women face. The constant onslaught of gender-related complications aggravated by perilous conditions, an unfamiliar culture and being severely outnumbered by men can be even more taxing.  Given the difficulties of working in these environments and what we have now learned, governments and companies must use this knowledge to help guide their staffing in future missions abroad, making sure the same problems do not needlessly repeat themselves costing morale, program success, billions of dollars, and lives.

*This article first appeared in the Foreign Policy Journal. 

Jade Wu is an author, lawyer and keynote speaker who has worked on development issues in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Philippines, Germany and Malawi.  She is writing her book with the working title, Overseas Chaos.  Follow her on twitter:  jadewu@jadejournal

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