Risks faced by LGBTI humanitarians deserve better consideration

by Amy Sheppey | Christian Aid - UK
Saturday, 19 August 2017 08:00 GMT

A participant stands behind a rainbow flag during a vigil in memory of the victims of the Pulse gay nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in Mumbai, India June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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Humanitarians operate in environments where even recognising LGBTI risks can be taboo

As humanitarians, we can feel uncomfortable about turning the attention on ourselves. We know the most vulnerable people are not us, but the people we support. But with increased targeted attacks on aid workers, World Humanitarian Day provides the opportunity to reflect upon the dangers we face. Dangers which can hinder our ability to deliver urgent aid.

Humanitarians are not just expats hired from ‘overseas’, they are also national staff, disproportionality affected by the majority of security incidents and facing risks not dissimilar to those they serve. With 40 per cent of the world’s population living in countries where gay, lesbian and bisexual people can be imprisoned, just for being themselves, we need to consider LGBTI risks for staff, local and international. So far, little has been done to address these threats.

Humanitarians operate in complex, changeable and increasingly dangerous environments, where even recognising LGBTI risks can be taboo.


LGBTI humanitarians commonly face violence, including so-called ‘corrective rape’ and harassment. Report the Abuse, a pioneer in the world of gender security, shared the first public data regarding sexual violence experienced by humanitarians. Little has been done to recognise LGBTI specific threats or address their security needs, yet 20% of sexual violence survivors identified as being LGBTI. Its director, Megan Nobert said: “We need to encourage all humanitarians to come forward about their experiences with sexual violence, but in particular those who are further stigmatized, which includes LGBTI survivors. They have incredibly powerful voices that we must hear”.

The fear of discrimination, disclosure or, conversely, pressure not to disclose, means LGBTI aid workers can face significant stress, related to isolation, family separation, distrust in colleagues and lack of healthcare access. One female, expatriate worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, has chosen to keep quiet after experiencing harassment in a previous role. Via email, she said:

“I feel I can't at all talk about it at work, nobody knows and I am very worried about them finding out. This forces me to keep my personal and professional life separate which in a country with few expats is tough. I have a reduced social life because of this”.

Following a gender based attack on her partner in West Africa, she was ‘outed’ by her colleagues, putting her and others at risk: “The nurse present in the ambulance found out I was married to a woman and the next day the whole medical team knew. My supervisor was so insensitive and made me feel guilty for not telling her when I was already completely traumatised by the attack. I couldn’t sleep anymore and cried all the time”.


One male, gay, aid worker, who requested anonymity, had a mixed experience in the field. After sharing that he is gay, he was surprised by the warmth and support from his colleagues in Gaza, mainly local staff. However, he recognises the dangers of being open and argues it’s down to the organisations will to recruit the right staff.

“Organisations need to ensure that all staff hired actually do practice open mindedness, sensitivity and acceptance of others.

“Before my field missions, there have never been discussions on LGBTI specific threats, it’s as though it doesn’t exist. We are much more likely to experience an incident with a colleague than with anyone else. Organisations do not screen for values, despite claiming to. Thus, organisations place LGBTI staff danger”.

These are the experiences of two international aid workers, faced with the challenge of working in varying contexts. What is often missing is a national aid worker voice. You can safely assume they face extra challenges when speaking out and risk persecution from their communities.

Despite the move toward better data capturing of aid worker security experiences, 96% of responders from Report the Abuse’s survey, are expatriates. In security analysis, as well as looking a gender identity and sexual orientation, it’s paramount that organisations address national and international aid worker risk respectively and encourage safe reporting.


There has been a move to integrate gender into security management. Firstly, sexual violence toward female aid workers have been widely covered in the media and NGOs are beginning to address this, thanks to the courage of humanitarians like Megan Nobert and a few committed organisations.

The ACT Alliance Safety & Security Community of Practice was among the first to highlight LGBTI risk within its gender security guidelines. They also run gender security training for staff all over the world. A transgender humanitarian recently collaborated to run a module, forcing staff to confront any prejudices.

The EISF are conducting research into the security of staff with diverse profiles. Organisations like Stonewall and LGBTI Aid and Development Workers offer immense support to staff.

On World Humanitarian Day, we have the opportunity to reflect and to recognise the risks our LGBTI staff face. But with recognition comes the need to make some concrete steps. Humanitarian workers are #NotATarget.

Amy Sheppey is a media & communications advisor for Christian Aid. She is also a gender security specialist and trainer for the ACT Alliance Safety & Security Community of Practice.