Women have risen to the top of war and foreign reportage. They run bureaus in dodgy places and do jobs that are just as dangerous as those that men do. But there is one area where they differ from the boys–sexual harassment and rape. Female reporters are targets in lawless places where guns are common and punishment rare. Yet the compulsion to be part of the macho club is so fierce that women often don’t tell their bosses. Groping hands and lewd come-ons are stoically accepted as part of the job, especially in places where western women are viewed as promiscuous. War zones in particular seem to invite unwanted advances, and sometimes the creeps can be the drivers, guards, and even the sources that one depends on to do the job. Often they are drunk. But female journalists tend to grit their teeth and keep on working, unless it gets worse.
Because of the secrecy around sexual assaults, it’s hard to judge their frequency. Yet I know of a dozen such assaults, including one suffered by a man. Eight of the cases involve forced intercourse, mostly in combat zones. The perpetrators included hotel employees, support staff, colleagues, and the very people who are paid to guarantee safety–policemen and security guards. None of the victims want to be named. For many women, going public can cause further distress. In the words of an American correspondent who awoke in her Baghdad compound to find her security guard’s head in her lap, “I don’t want it out there, for people to look at me and think, ‘Hmmm. This guy did that to her, yuck.’ I don’t want to be viewed in my worst vulnerability.”
The only attempt to quantify this problem has been a slim survey of female war reporters published two years ago by the International News Safety Institute, based in Brussels. Of the twenty-nine respondents who took part, more than half reported sexual harassment on the job. Two said they had experienced sexual abuse. But even when the abuse is rape, few correspondents tell anyone, even friends. The shame runs so deep–and the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strong–that no one wants intimate violations to resound in a newsroom.
Rodney Pinder, the director of the institute, was struck by how some senior newswomen he approached after the 2005 survey were reluctant to take a stand on rape. “The feedback I got was mainly that women didn’t want to be seen as ‘special’ cases for fear that, a) it affected gender equality and b) it hindered them getting assignments,” he says.
Caroline Neil, who has done safety training with major networks over the past decade, agrees. “The subject has been swept under the carpet. It’s something people don’t like to talk about.”