Early on I knew that I wanted to work in the humanitarian sector. I spent several years coordinating humanitarian projects before I one day realised that something was missing. While on a mission in central Mali I was introduced to some of the security concerns aid workers face and also came to realise that this could be a way for me to engage in the humanitarian sector through a technical lens that I would find more interesting.
So I decided to go back to study and through that, gained an internship with an international non-governmental organisation (INGO). This meant that I left a full time, well-paid job to become an intern with no salary at all. That took a bit of getting used to, but my passion for the topic outshined the downside of the transition. I was also fortunate to live in a country where it was possible for me to take an unpaid internship, which I know is not a reality for a lot of people.
What I like about the humanitarian security sector
I love that I get to visit incredibly interesting places and people, who I would not meet in any other job. I cannot think of another job that would have brought me to a mountaintop eating melon with my Afghan colleagues or had me drive into the Mozambican bush for hours to meet the local chief. Not only do I get to meet the people of the country I work in, but I also have colleagues from all over the world, which is super inspiring. I have met so many great people and made friends for life from all over the world.
I also love that a big part of my job basically is to get to know the context and based on that provide advice and guidance. This leads me to the training aspect which is one of my favourite parts of my job. I am a strong believer in building capacity and absolutely love doing safety and security trainings as well as on the job training. I feel passionate about transferring knowledge and building capacity on the ground. I find it extremely empowering and meaningful to do that kind of work. On a good day, my job just feels like I get paid to do what I enjoy the most.
"I also love that a big part of my job basically is to get to know the context and based on that provide advice and guidance. This leads me to the training aspect which is one of my favourite parts of my job. I am a strong believer in building capacity and absolutely love doing safety and security trainings as well as on the job training."
On my recent birthday, a colleague gave me a poster with the words “Do no harm - take no s***”, which is something I try to live by. Therefore I would say some of the moments I look back on in my career and think of with pride are the times I have stood up for what is right, for others and myself. I never regretted listening to my gut feeling and acting upon it. Standing up for what is right and being true to who you are is for me the most honest we can be with ourselves and others.
What I learned as a woman in the sector
I once worked for a male boss whom I worked with covering several positions at once in a junior position. After two years, he flatly refused to give me a promotion that would fit the job I was actually doing - since I did not have “enough experience”. When I then asked for capacity building he told me I was “too eager” and had to “be patient”. I left right after that - and got a much better job far above the level where I was previously.
I also worked for a male boss who again had no interest in my professional development and mostly took me for granted. When I was asked to give professional feedback on his management style and gave an honest, constructive answer, I was told I was “too aggressive” and “too honest”. Finally, I worked for an overtly chauvinistic gentleman with an even more chauvinistic boss. He bragged about having a female in the position but bullied and harassed me. After months of bullying, I filed a grievance and left the organisation. I am unfortunately sure that I am not the only one having had similar or even much worse experiences, and I dare to say that this probably sounds familiar in other parts of the security sector and not only the humanitarian sector.
In most of the above situations I was accused of being too eager, too impatient, too aggressive, too decisive, too passionate. I believe these situations had a lot to do with me being a young decisive female, facing managers who never received much capacity building nor were taught how to be a leader which I see as symptomatic of the humanitarian sector. But I have also found myself more than once wondering if I would have been treated the same way if I was a man.
To talk specifically about the humanitarian security sector, we are still at a point where even though females are slowly making their way in, the majority of the senior positions are still held by males, and not always because they are the most qualified, but rather, because they are the most well-connected. While I am not blind to my gender, I also wish that I would be hired for my capacity and not only to balance gender in a field that is so male dominated.
From a personal perspective I believe women can have a very unique role in security, particularly in certain more conservative cultures. In some places, a foreign female is seen as a third gender – neither man nor woman, which gives you unique access to both men and women. I have also experienced that people sometimes get less intimidated by me than they do of a male colleague in the same role. I do think it is important that we generally look at all aspects of our profile and how that can affect our job, whether that is gender or one of the many other aspects that tend to define our overall interaction with people.
"From a personal perspective I believe women can have a very unique role in security, particularly in certain more conservative cultures. In some places, a foreign female is seen as a third gender – neither man nor woman, which gives you unique access to both men and women."
As a fairly privileged woman from the west, I believe I have quite good opportunities in the humanitarian security sector since my profile is still unique. However, when I’ve been to countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Mozambique, security staff are quite consistently male. The humanitarian security sector is largely lacking capacity building, because there is never money nor time for it. Security is still a box most INGOs need to tick, an afterthought, and thus budgets are limited. This results in a situation where there naturally is created gender imbalance as there is no lack of ex-military men but it is hard for women with a different background/experience to get a security job as recruiters look for exactly that kind of ex-military experience.
Ironically enough this is one of the most common things I hear when I apply for a job - we are looking for someone without a military background. Which is great, but how do you expect women to get that experience and training outside of the military if the sector is not offering alternatives such as junior and entry level positions to build capacity? There is nothing so technical about safety and security for INGOs that cannot be taught to someone sharp and committed. On average, this is a problem that affects everyone, regardless of any aspects of personal background. Humans are not appliances bought from the store with the expectation that they should work in a plug and play fashion.
I would like to see more focus within the security sector on understanding the context and the people. I do not have a crystal ball but I believe that with proper analysis we can get a good start. Especially in the humanitarian sector where mostly the places we work are rarely safe, we will hardly find a perfectly safe solution, but with studying the context we can find the best and safest way possible to proceed. There is no blanket solution to this kind of work and I hope we will soon put those days behind us where some people think that barbwire and body armour are the best ways to keep people safe.
We need to move away from seeing security as an obstacle to get work done and rather as a contributing factor to getting the work done as safe as possible. That change has to happen not only among security professionals but also our fellow humanitarian colleagues. I also hope that the humanitarian security sector will become more professionalised and not seen as men in the cargo pants with fast looking sunnies. This includes building capacity throughout the sector to ensure we get capable people to do the job.
For those who want a security job in the humanitarian sector a good place to start is to get to know the humanitarian sector well. An internship in pretty much any implementing position will give you so much understanding of the work done which will be much needed when you eventually have to support other people doing their job but in a security advisor position. However, there are very very few junior positions or entry level positions and as mentioned most INGOs expect people to already have experience but won't help you get it. Anyone who wants to do this job should therefore be ready for the path to not be laid out easily, but that doesn't mean it isn't fun.
"For those who want a security job in the humanitarian sector a good place to start is to get to know the humanitarian sector well. An internship in pretty much any implementing position will give you so much understanding of the work done which will be much needed when you eventually have to support other people doing their job but in a security advisor position."
Also, I would say it is important to possess the conviction and self-confidence to be your own person, since there are more bad examples of how to be than good ones.
Finally, I would always be happy to have a chat on LinkedIn if anyone wants to know more or share some ideas. I for myself, am still enjoying the bumpy ride this sector can be, still making friends and having amazing learning experiences i wouldn't be without.
Kiki most recently worked as an access and safety practitioner within the humanitarian aid sector. Before this she worked as a safety and security trainer preparing aid workers to go to the field.