Last month I was stopped at three roadblocks, shot at, and taken hostage.
This took place in the woods of Virginia, as part of a Hostile Environments Awareness Training (HEAT). There I was taught the different ranges and capabilities of guns and explosives, and how best to protect myself against them. I learned how to twist out of four different holds and that shouting “fire” is more likely to draw bystanders’ attention than yelling “rape.”
The training was deeply frightening—not only because the instructors and actors were so good at the simulations—but also because it is necessary at all.
Women for Women International works in some of the most dangerous places to be a woman, providing women survivors of war resources, skills, and knowledge to rebuild their lives. The work entails serious risks for the people we serve and our staff. We’ve had women in northern Nigeria attacked on the way to training by those who believe women should not be educated; we’ve had our trainers in South Sudan kidnapped for ransom; and most tragically of all, in Afghanistan, one of our men’s engagement trainers—a progressive mullah–killed for supporting women’s rights. This year a bomb detonated in the street of our office in Kabul and killed several other NGO employees. Our staff now work with sandbags lining the walls of their building and have pulled their desks to the middle of the room for greater safety. As an organization working in conflict zones, security training for our staff is not an option: it’s a necessity.
Having worked in conflict zones on and off for 30 years- I’m no stranger to security training. But what was distinctive about this HEAT course was its significant focus on sexual assault. This is a very important addition that made me realize that despite years of working on women’s rights and having multiple experiences of sexual assault, I’ve never actually received professional advice on what to do in an assault scenario before.
I was struck by the contrast between the advice given – if stopped or kidnapped stay polite and calm and hand over whatever is asked for to avoid physical harm – but if faced with sexual assault resist, scream, and run.
The trainers were all big, strong military men. They were approaching the topic very sensitively, but unlike with the other topics, they did not have direct experience. I found myself wondering, ‘Is this information really sound?’
Days later, reflecting on my own experiences of assault in which I took the tact of trying to negotiate my way to safety, the nagging question of ‘Would I have been better off had I known this advice?’ led me to do my own research.
I found a plethora of how-to guides on avoiding assault or steps to take after assault, but very little practical information on what to do during an assault. It took diving into academic research to find that the HEAT trainers were right – statistics show odds of being raped are cut in half by resisting, while odds of being injured only go up around 10%.
A summary of ten years of research I found concluded: “fighting, fleeing, and screaming/yelling are all associated with decreased odds of completing rape…resistance needs to be as forceful as the offenders attack and to match the type of strategy used by the attacker.”
It is depressing and shocking that though a third of women experience assault, resistance tactics are not common knowledge, and we must continue to include caveats that rape is rape and women are not to blame whether we resist or not.
But I am also inspired, and relieved. The burden feels less heavy. Mainstream training, led by military men who clearly deeply care, is now spotlighting the high risk and high trauma of sexual assault, providing support, and training to combat this assault.
Our movement is growing. More and more people know and care about ending sexual assault and rape for the widely marginalized women in war zones who Women for Women International serve and also those right here at home.