How Should the Media Report Rape and Sexual Violence? 19/8/2016

Published by THEGUARDIAN

The Associated Press (AP) news piece
that broke the story of rapes and attacks on aid workers in South Sudan
read like a pitch for a Hollywood movie. But real women and men were
victims of the attack on the Terrain hotel complex in South Sudan, which
included gang-rape of aid workers, torture and looting.

This was an abhorrent attack and it is important that journalists
covered it. The attack raises concerns about the safety and security of
aid workers in South Sudan, and highlights the increasing dangers that
aid workers face worldwide as they work to help people in desperate
need. Credit is due to the reporter for his persistence in tracking down
witnesses and piecing the events together. 

We have had clients contact us who we haven’t worked with for years, because they were re-triggered by the article

Natalie McCauley, counsellor, Humanitarian Wellbeing

However, the way it is written does the survivors’ courage a
disservice. The survivors who came forward must be commended. They are
incredibly brave women and men. Their experience and ability to speak so
soon after the incident is a testament to their strength. Apparently
they are receiving the support that they need from their organisations,
which is fantastic news. Their voices will hopefully help to drive
change in the sector to protect other aid workers.

But I can’t help but feel that Jason Patinkin, the writer of the AP
article, shows a lack of empathy with the survivors and a lack of
experience with reporting on rape issues. This inexperience threatens to
undermine the important message that a properly drafted article on the
attacks might have conveyed.

Firstly, the level of detail is, in my opinion, salacious. (A subsequent report on the UK’s Channel 4 news
similarly resorted to graphic recounts and a video of Terrain in
disarray, rather than focusing on the broader issues raised by the
attack.) “We have had clients contact us who we haven’t worked with for
years, because they were re-triggered by the article,” said Natalie
McCauley from Humanitarian Wellbeing,
an organisation which provides counselling services to aid workers, who
also felt the report included an unnecessary level of detail.

Aid worker: I was drugged and raped by another humanitarian in South Sudan

Megan Nobert

Secondly, Patinkin’s article breaks guidelines
(pdf) for reporting on gender-based violence in humanitarian contexts.
No mention of resources or support is provided in the piece. No
gender-based violence experts were quoted or appear to have been
consulted. It was a raw description of a charged sexual and violent
attack on a group of expatriates and nationals in South Sudan – one that
titillates and inspires fear, one that fails to provide context on
either the broader issue of attacks on aid workers or even the conflict
in South Sudan.

I’m also concerned that the survivors may be identified from his piece. After my own experience with rape in South Sudan,
I chose to go public. But no one should have that choice forced on them
and within hours there was speculation about the identities in
increasingly large circles among tight-knit humanitarian networks.
Anonymity must be considered in the much larger context of a piece, and
one must always err on the side of caution.

Secret aid worker: there is a new trend of sexual violence in South Sudan

Finally, no forethought appears to have been put into the impact this
will have on nationals in South Sudan. The article notes minute details
about the uniforms of the attackers. For those outside of South Sudan,
these details appear inconsequential. However, they are the insignia of a
powerful and dangerous armed group of individuals in South Sudan, one
that has already committed multiple gang-rapes on both expatriates and
nationals over the past year, with utter impunity. By obliquely naming
this group, every single national that was present at the attack is now
placed in additional danger, and they are not offered the protective
measures that expatriates have been.

However, Paul Colford, AP vice president and director of media relations says:

“Our story was carefully reported and edited, and given the extreme
sensitivity of the subject matter the reporting process included sharing
the text with the anonymously quoted victims before publication to
ensure that AP’s report would accurately reflect their accounts of what
happened to them and around them, and to ensure the article would not
put them and their colleagues at risk. The victims have since expressed
their appreciation for the story that AP published for a global
audience.”

Setting aside concerns about the way Patinkin wrote the article, it
does raise the issue of rape being used as a weapon against aid workers.
So, what can be done to address the problem?

Rape is usually ignored in trainings and the risk is downplayed

Sarah Martin, gender-based violence humanitarian consultant

Security managers claim that rape, particularly when perpetrators are
in armed groups, cannot be prevented, and that is why they don’t raise
it in training. “I have heard that myth so many times from security
personnel,” says Sarah Martin, a consultant who has worked on
gender-based violence issues in emergency contexts throughout the globe.

“Rape is usually ignored in trainings and the risk is downplayed. But
even if you cannot prevent an act of rape, it is important that
organisations and individuals are aware whether there is a plan in place
to medically and emotionally support the survivor.”

Knowing organisation’s reporting procedures – if they exist – are vital to addressing the problem. However, a report (pdf) on how the humanitarian system addresses sexual violence by Report the Abuse
found that only 16% of the organisations examined have any sort of
response strategy, policy or procedure that mentioned sexual violence
against their employees. With an overwhelming number of organisations
not having structures in place, it is essential to get a straight answer
from them before something happens – how will you handle a case of
rape?

Sexual violence in the aid sector: what should NGOs be doing?Trainings such as hostile environment awareness – often mandatory
before being deployed – could do more by giving people a place to
discuss their fears and give them some basic information on how (and how
not) to talk to survivors. They can also be used to communicate
necessary information regarding post-rape kits, evacuation plans, access
to therapy and procedures for compassionate leave. Organisations like ILS and Humanitrain are already provide resources like this.

How can we report on incidents of rape in a way that is productive
and nurturing, that does not resort to salacious details? Through media
reports that are thoughtful and that do not expose those who have had
horrible experiences to further trauma. By supporting survivors and
honouring their confidentiality. By refusing to play into the media
desire for details and drama, and taking calculated steps back.

As a fellow rape survivor, I send my utmost gratitude to those who
were attacked in South Sudan last month. You have been in my thoughts,
and I am available should you wish to talk. You deserved to be treated
better by the journalist you trusted, and I genuinely hope people will
respect your right to remain anonymous. I am sorry that my speaking out
could not stop what happened to you, but I am hopeful that your strong
voices will help to stop this from happening to others. We have to try.

Sexual assaults against aid workers: it's time to take a stand

Megan Nobert

If you are have been affected by the story in this article, Rape Crisis England and Wales or Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network can provide support. If you are not in the UK or the US, Hot Peach Pages provides a directory of gender-based violence organisations all over the world.