Finally…a HEFAT course for women!

During more than a decade working as a freelance journalist, I’ve attended several hostile environment and first aid training (HEFAT) courses. These trainings are essential for reporters working in dangerous areas, but many freelance journalists aren’t able to afford them. (Course fees alone can total thousands of dollars.) In recent years, after the tragic deaths of several freelance journalists, publications and agencies have begun taking responsibility for ensuring the reporters they send into dangerous environments have this training.

The IWMF has been a big part of that movement by running HEFAT courses at the beginning of all reporting trips and holding additional trainings for local journalists. But the HEFAT course I took before traveling to Kinshasa on an IWMF reporting trip was different than any others I’ve taken in a big way: it was tailored to women.

This might sound like a no-brainer. But no other course I’ve taken has specifically addressed the security concerns of women. Sometimes these courses can take on an air of machismo, with participants and instructors comparing war stories, trying to one-up each other on the dangerous situations they’ve survived. But even when that doesn’t happen, the courses usually still feel like they are designed by men, for men, with no thought to the specific issues women face.

Here’s a big one: sexual assault. Women journalists face sexual violence at an alarming rate while working in the field. (Check out the IWMF’s new study on attacks on women journalists.) Many of us have been assaulted and harassed, and it gets even more difficult and dangerous to deal with these attacks when they happen in a conflict zone or an already dangerous environment. This is one of my top concerns when I plan for a difficult reporting trip, because I know it is one of the biggest dangers I will face. But how many times has this come up in the HEFAT courses I’ve taken? Exactly zero, until now. No discussion on ways to protect ourselves from this risk. No advice on seeking medical attention after being raped in a conflict zone. Lots of hostage scenarios, but little discussion of sexual violence against female captives. (To be clear, sexual violence is also an issue men face, if at a lesser rate, so they also benefit when we include this discussion in HEFAT courses.)

The IWMF’s HEFAT course wasn’t designed to ignore half the population, and for that I am grateful. We discussed the risk of sexual violence on assignment, and ways to mitigate it and deal with it. We trained in self-defense tactics that can help us escape assault, and it was empowering to learn moves that can work on an assailant twice my size. The women journalists taking the course were treated not like an afterthought, but like people who have legitimate needs and concerns that should be addressed. It was refreshing, and I left the course more prepared to face danger in the field.

–Kristen Chick, DRC Reporting Fellow (August 2018)