The ladies’ room

Kerry Akers Conflict, Gender, Humanitarian, Protection

Kerry Akers talks about the careful considerations and interdisciplinary collaboration needed to ensure that protection work is not based on harmful assumptions.

Humanitarian camps are dark at night. The curfew is sunset and the camp is heaving. Spilling out of their crowded tents onto the streets, people sit around dim cooking stoves talking and waving the mosquitoes away. The streets are slippery with mud, dotted with deep pools of stagnant water. Making your way to the toilet after dark is treacherous, the roads are uneven and you fall many times on your way, losing your footing as your eyes try to adjust to the darkness. Your husband helps to sure your footing, but is unable to walk all the way with you, as he has to put the children to bed. Out of the shadows you hear insults shouted at you, hands grabbing at you; sexual violence is a frequent occurrence.

Aid workers listen to your story: they hold meetings about which cluster will take responsibility, they interview women and girls throughout the camp, and they install a powerful light outside the toilet to protect you. You cautiously make your way again that night, it is still dark in the camp, it is quiet, there is no grabbing, and no insults. Then you arrive at the newly installed beacon of safety – the lit toilet. Turns out no one spoke to the men, no one installed lights outside their latrine and there they are, a large group gathered around the ladies’ room playing cards under the light. You have no choice but to walk through the big crowd. ¬†Sexual violence is still a frequent occurrence.

In South Sudan, the relationship between lighting, toilets and sexual violence seemed like an obvious one to aid workers, but the realisation that light drew men to congregate around women’s toilets and could actually increase the risk of sexual violence illustrated that the topic required much deeper consideration.

Whilst lighting is routinely utilised in humanitarian settings to reduce risk of sexual violence around toilets, particularly in camp settings, further evidence on the topic is required to ensure that the lighting solutions being used do not actually increase the risk of GBV gender based violence (GBV). Social variables, such as gender, age and cultural dynamics within camps, paired with technical variables such as sources of light, lighting devices and sustainability all need to be carefully considered. Similarly, the notion that darkness is necessarily more dangerous than light is an assumption that needs to be reconsidered by the humanitarian community. In Oxfam we found improved collaboration between WASH and Protection teams was a good place to start questioning those assumptions.


Caroline Cassidy