The photographer was a seasoned operator in South Asia. So when she set forth on an assignment in India, she knew how to guard against gropers: dress modestly in jeans secured with a thick belt and take along a male companion. All those preparations failed, however, when an unruly crowd surged and swept away her colleague. She was pushed into a ditch, where several men set upon her, tearing at her clothes and baying for sex. They ripped the buttons off her shirt and set to work on her trousers.
“My first thought was my cameras,” recalls the photographer, who asked to remain anonymous. “Then it was, Oh my God, Im going to be raped. ” With her faced pressed into the soil, she couldnt shout for help, and no one would have heard her anyway above the mobs taunts. Suddenly a Good Samaritan in the crowd pulled the photographer by the camera straps several yards to the feet of some policemen who had been watching the scene without intervening. They sneered at her exposed chest, but escorted her to safety.
Alone in her hotel room that night, the photographer recalls, she cried, thinking, “What a bloody way to make a living.“ She didnt inform her editors, however. “I put myself out there equal to the boys. I didnt want to be seen in any way as weaker.”
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 boyssexual 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 dont 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, its 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 safetypolicemen 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 guards head in her lap, “I dont want it out there, for people to look at me and think, Hmmm. This guy did that to her, yuck. I dont 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 deepand the fear of being pulled off an assignment, especially in a time of shrinking budgets, is so strongthat 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 didnt 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. Its something people dont like to talk about.”