Female Journalists and Sexual Violence: A Long Overdue Conversation

As a female foreign correspondent, it often seems you have to prove that being female isn't going to be a hindrance to your job.
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I want to join the many female journalists across the blogosphere in applauding Lara Logan's courage for speaking out about the sexual violence she fell victim to while covering the protests in Tahrir Square. In doing so she has opened a debate that has been shamefully quiet -- male and female journalists alike need to take responsibility for not pushing this subject into the public consciousness sooner. And it certainly shouldn't have taken a semi-famous, highly respected, and dare I say it, attractive female journalist to open this can of worms.

In my experience, working as a freelance journalist, the female part of being a female foreign correspondent often feels like yet another hurdle -- there are language barriers to overcome, an understanding of cultural differences to appreciate and a deep grasp of a region's historical heritage that all journalists need to develop to do their job with the necessary intellectual rigor and sensitivity. But it often seems that in addition to proving that you've mastered these, as a female journalist, you also have to prove that being female isn't going to be a hindrance to your job.

As ProPublica's Kim Barker pointed out in a piece co-published by The Huffington Post and the New York Times on Saturday, the female voice of war must be heard -- "without female correspondents in war zones, the experiences of women there may be only a rumor," writes Kim. And there female journalists have a natural advantage -- empathy is central to a journalist's role (to my mind empathy is more important that objectivity, but that's for another debate), and empathy flows along lines of common experience -- gender being once of the most basic.

By the same token, a male journalist will do better in a male-dominated situation -- say talking to front-line troops, where adding a women into the mix will change the dynamic. These differences aren't to be fought -- they can't be -- but rather acknowledged, accepted and embraced -- otherwise the banner of gender equality that the West dances under is no more than a veil, not dissimilar to the hijab that has become a symbol of gender inequality to be spurned, attacked and irradiated by the West.

A journalist friend of mine, Melanie Gouby, who works for IWPR giving voice and confidence to female journalists from the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, describes in a blog post the difficulty when "the camera turns around," and it is the female journalists she's working with are the victims of the very same sexual violence they are trying so hard to expose. Melanie's commendable work is an essential part of the debate about women's rights around the world and those who tell the stories. But we must not forget a part of that debate that is happening much closer to home -- and it is so often overlooked.

Sexual violence has been recognized as a weapon of war and conflict -- and men and women, the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, can all be its victim. That means journalists too. As Melanie points out -- " kidnapped, injured or traumatized war correspondents do not lose their job." In fact they usually then enjoy a new job security. Think Alan Johnston, who after four months in captivity in Gaza is now the voice of the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent program, and Frank Gradner, again of the BBC, who was paralyzed in Saudi Arabia and is now that station's security correspondent. Their experiences are as horrific as Logan's, and their courage has been rightly rewarded by the organizations they work for. So why do female journalists fear speaking out their experiences of sexual violence?

A similar debate was pushed into the open in the 90s around post traumatic stress disorder -- it was widely recognized as affecting returning troops, but returning war correspondents were not offered psychological support, rather allowed to wallow in the cliché of the hard-drinking, unshaven bachelor, shunning all emotion and physical comfort. Thanks to the relentless work of groups such as the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, psychological training and support is now an established part of the media scene.

But it does not extend to gender violence. Why not? The recent events in Egypt has sparked debates across the board about political rights, free speech, the role of global telecommunications, to name a few, and this debate is another one that also needs to be had. The silence has been broken and that conversation now needs to begin.

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