As women, we bear special risks. These risks may go unnoticed by the men around us – including our bosses, security officers, peers, and partners.
We must take precautions to protect ourselves and our bodies.
This can be frustrating if you enjoyed a sense of empowerment and liberties in your home culture. But, remember: The countries and cultures your role may take you likely don’t espouse the same perspective on women or condone such liberties. Respecting local culture reflects well on you and can save your life.
Oh, and don't forget that you wouldn't be reading this if we hadn't been there too! We've made these mistakes already! So, don't assume we're pointing our fingers at you! Au contraire, we're trying to save you some harassment and humiliation by reminding you that the endless recommendations you've heard, and that make you feel like a kid back in primary school, actually deserve your attention! So, don't feel bullied by us or that we're patronizing you. Just feel well equipped to stand tall as a woman!
Cover Up! (No, really! Cover up!)
In many cultures, it is not okay to reveal skin below the neck, above the wrists, above the ankles, at the lower back, etc. Wearing clothes which may be acceptable back home - like low-riding pants, v-neck t-shirts, tank tops, skirts above the knees or even ankles, shorts, etc. - may be unacceptable elsewhere.
While none of us wishes to dress like our grannies or to be deemed the international prude, you can still be yourself while respecting the local culture. As many of us have found, you will likely feel much better and more integrated when you make the effort to blend into the local culture.
Do not assume it is your right to wear whatever you want; doing so will likely reflect poorly on you, leading locals to view you as disrespecting their culture and/or to assume that you are a “loose women”, inviting attention from men. If that assumption exists, the “attention” is rarely limited to stares or cat calls.
Party Not So Hearty
While you might belly up to the bar back home, it may be culturally inappropriate in your new community. Respect this. Going against the local grain - even if liberating for you - may reflect negatively on you and on your employer.
One-Nighters, Relationships, and Tying the Knot
Being in a relationship is natural - whether with an international or with a local. But, it’s still important to respect the local culture.
Be cautious of appearing as if you are sleeping around or involved in multiple, short-term relationships. In an ideal world, this would pertain to men as well, but the reality is otherwise. It is up to you, of course, what you choose to do, but try to understand the local culture and how locals, including your local colleagues, may interpret your behavior or view you. You may find that it’s in your own best interests to keep your personal/social life to yourself, as much as possible. But, if you would prefer (and make the same mistakes as some of us have!), the local paper would probably be very interested to have all the deets on your meanderings!
Oh, and if your relationship has progressed to the thought of saying "I do", congratulations! But, ask yourself first: "Do I really?" Sometimes, it helps to remove yourself and your partner (at the same time!) to a new context, like your home country or to a location where s/he can meet your family and friends (in this case not the same ones you hang out with every night). Take it slowly! No reason to rush! You have plenty more missions, countries, and continents before you have to take the plunge. Really!
Whistles, Cat Calls and More
In the streets, you may feel like an animal – with unsolicited whistles, cat calls, marriage proposals, general harassment and groping, physical aggression, and even sexual assaults.
Try to ignore the whistles and cat calls. Even if you do not feel strong or empowered on the inside, display yourself as a confident woman who does not hear or see the noises or harassment, even though you are paying careful attention for your own protection.
Avoid being out at night and entering dark or unpopulated streets. Walk with others, whenever possible. Even better, catch a ride with friends or colleagues you trust, or take a cab - preferably with others.
Perceptions of Women in the Local Workplace
At work, you may not receive the same level of respect from male colleagues as you expect. Remain strong and persistent, demonstrating your competency. Do not relent unless it may put your life in danger.
Cross-Cultural Harassment at Work
If a situation arises in which you are uncomfortable and you need to report an incident to upper-level management, generally you should. However, bear in mind that things do not always work as they “should” in the field. Turning in a colleague for inappropriate behavior, albeit necessary, can result in your worst nightmare.
Sooo, be cautious and weigh the potential consequences of your actions. If necessary for your safety, wait until you have left the region to report on a local colleague . . . when you can be assured safety.
Demotions and Contract Cuts
If you are a manager and it comes time to make a firm decision on the status or contract of a subordinate, understand the local context. Of course, it's critical to preserve the interests and mission of the organization and the needs of beneficiaries first and foremost. However, it's still important to understand that demoting a staff member, especially a local, or cutting his/her contract can have dire effects on the staff member as well as on his/her family. A job and a contract literally equate to basic necessities in most aid-working locations.
While it is, of course, necessary to cut contracts and/or change the status of an employee, remember to respect the person's human rights and handle the situation delicately, taking care to slowly make any necessary changes so s/he can adapt rather than abruptly forcing the change upon him/her and affected family members.
Also, recognize that because of the serious consequences of contract changes, your life may be at risk. In some contexts, staff members whose contracts have been cut who have been personally demoted have threatened the death of those involved and/or gone so far as to actually murder them.
Be prudent in your decisions and both humane and respectful in your approach.
Some of your closest companions can be local women. They understand their own cultures and the local male : female relation best. Collaborate with them, learn from their experiences and local knowledge, and come to know the local culture even better through friendships. Women everywhere tend to form intimate social bonds. And, as you may find, local women may prove to be your best allies!
Join the “Women Unite!” network to share thoughts and experiences with other women in the field.
Or, click on the links below to learn more about the experiences of female staff in the field.