Elvyr Missinhoun, UNHCR

(photo credit: Elvyr Missinhoun, UNHCR)

The experience of female aid workers often differs vastly from that of men. In some locations and cultures, the difference is striking. This can be both rewarding and tear-your-hair-out frustrating.

Rewarding because women may receive unique access and insight into certain areas of local culture that men simply won't.

Tear-your-hair-out frustrating because - unlike a woman's male friends, colleagues and partners - a woman will almost invariably be treated like an object, becoming the recipient of whistles, cat calls, groping, and worse on a daily basis. While we might think this experience is unique to certain cultures, it's a reality in most countries and cultures.

Women are often encouraged to "get used to it" or to behave in a certain manner in order to avoid provoking men. However, a woman should not have to "get used to it" and should not be blamed for provoking men. It is the responsibility of men to respect women and of each of us to ensure our speech, behavior and actions promote respect for women.

Unfortunately, the reality is that - while women may benefit from a greater sense of respect and equality in some locations - few cultures can claim to embrace true gender equality. For this reason, it is important to understand the gender disparities unique to each culture and to learn how to manage them.

Armed with a clearer understanding of local views and perceptions of women and gender-specific roles enables each of us to understand our own role and to find balance between local cultural norms and expectations and our need to feel empowered in our own skin.

Note that it is important to respect the local culture and likewise beneficial to "adapt" to it. However, adaptation should not jeopardize one's own sense of empowerment as a woman.

Further, adaptation should not be misunderstood for "acceptance". Understanding that a woman is deemed a second-class citizen in a particular country and that you, your female partner, your female friend, or your female colleague is also considered second-class is one thing. Accepting it is another.

In this section, you will find:

Also, under Your Story is My Story, we invite staff of all genders and sexual orientations to share their stories of firsthand experience with gender-based harassment and violence in the field. We want to hear from you!