The only time in my conflict reporting career that I received different treatment from the guys occurred in Johannesburg in 1993. Our Reuters bureau was finally — finally! — being outfitted with flak jackets to cover the violence surrounding the end of apartheid. Since a big part of the job involved driving into townships filled with men pointing assault rifles, I was very happy to receive body armor at long last.
What a surprise, though, when I opened the box. My flak jacket was red. The guys’ were blue.
“That’s because you’re a girl,” one of the cameramen joked. Everyone chortled. I left it at that.
Fortunately the gender distinction was never made in terms of assignments. I was chosen to cover the worst tumult on the Durban coast. The civil wars in nearby Angola and Mozambique were my turf. My superiors routinely dispatched me at 4 in the morning to report on massacres. I worried about sexual assault, every woman [war correspondent] does, just as I feared being shot dead like some of my male colleagues had been. But if my bosses feared I would be raped, they didn’t say.
I’m now wondering if such equality will change following the hideous attack on Lara Logan of CBS. I’d imagine that no newsroom managers would admit publicly that they would hamper a woman’s chances at plum foreign assignments, but the desire to protect female staff may rein strong. “Will they holds us back?” is a concern I’m hearing today from female veterans of combat reporting.
Let’s hope the answer is “no.” We ladies go into this line of work knowing the risks. The possibility of rape hangs over us, but so does losing our legs to landmines, as happened to Joao Silva of The New York Times. To be honest, I’d rather be molested than unable to walk. And there’s a case to be made that, as a general rule, women can navigate perilous terrain more safely than men. I’ve noticed that soldiers don’t puff up with testosterone when women approach them. Army guys often feel protective towards us and watch our backs more carefully, or confess stuff that they might not to another macho. We’re less threatening to defenseless women and children, the people who form the mass of victims with stories to tell.
Indeed, instead of pulling women back from the field, managers should ensure they receive proper training in order to make sound judgments. Employers should ensure rape prevention is introduced into safety training. And they should have frank conversations so that female staff feel comfortable confiding in supervisors should the unmentionable happen.
As a postscript to the flak jacket, it turned out that red served as an advantage. It might even have saved my life. Blue was the color worn by the police so the guys often faced hostility when they pulled up to barricades. But red? Who on earth wore a red flak jacket? It was a source of curiosity, if not amusement. I’m convinced those gunmen wouldn’t shoot someone wearing red, particularly when that someone was a small, vulnerable-looking woman.
Judith Matloff teaches a conflict-reporting course at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran foreign correspondent, she also serves on the board of the International News Safety Institute.