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It's Just How Things Are Done


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Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs 

Sovereignty, Order and Conflict presents 

It's Just How Things Are Done: Humanitarian Principles, Gender, and Informal Socialization in Aid Work

Increasing research on humanitarian communities investigates how the nature of their work affects humanitarian workers’ personal lives and vice versa, especially with regards to issues such as mental health and sexual violence. The #MeToo movement and several public scandals have brought to light undeniable patterns of sexual violence in crisis zones perpetrated by humanitarian aid workers; allegations reveal a trend of predominantly male-identified humanitarians perpetrating sexual violence against both their fellow aid workers and the communities they purport to serve. Why is sexual violence seemingly endemic to humanitarian communities governed by strong principles, professional codes of conduct, and oversight? 

This manuscript draws on textual analysis, participant observation, and in-depth interviews to argue that informal socialization practices interact with gendered and raced employment structures and “pressure cooker” environments to normalize certain forms of sexual harassment, coercion, and exploitation while labeling them “how things are done.” Specifically, we argue that social and geographic isolation, the construction of local spaces and people as “threatening,” and the sexualization of leisure time and mental health practices all contribute to the conditions of possibility for sexual harassment and assault to be normalized and seen as “how things are done.”

Sarah Parkinson

Assistant Professor

John Hopkins University

Dr. Sarah E. Parkinson is the Aronson Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research examines organizational behavior and social change in contexts of war and disaster. Focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, Parkinson studies how actors such as military organizations, political parties, and humanitarian groups cope with crisis, disruption, and fragmentation. She has conducted extensive fieldwork among Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon as well as with humanitarian responders in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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