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Terrorism warnings have many treading carefully

BY SUSAN KIM | RUTHER GLEN, VA | May 15, 2001

This week -- as Osama Bin Laden followers await a verdict in New York and convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh awaits his fate -- Terry Wesbrock could be busier than usual.

"One issue brought up during the rally was that women working for NGOs trying to empower other women should be targeted (for acts of terrorism and threats)," said Wesbrock, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource specialist.

Wesbrock -- who recently returned safely to her home in Ruther Glen, VA -- said 25 women attended the seminar in spite of the perceived danger. "I was a little nervous about it. It was in the back of my mind the whole day," she said.

Sponsored by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the one-day workshop was part of security training for people in Pakistan who work for NGOs, many of them organizations involved in disaster response, relief for the poor, and community development.

Most of the participants were from Pakistani-based NGOs, said Wesbrock, who said Pakistani staff from CRS and CWS also attended.

Talk centered on personal safety in the field in a country where women face repeated instances of sexual harassment, stalking, and rape, along with terrorist threats from the groups like those that held the rally.

If Pakistani women report any threats or attacks, they fear being viewed as weak, or not able to perform their job, explained Wesbrock. "And if their family finds out they're in danger, the family may prevent a woman from working."

If a woman is raped, a family may proceed with what is known as "an honor killing," or killing the rape victim in a misguided attempt to save her family's reputation, said Wesbrock.

"A woman's choices are so limited," she said. By working in the field -- as a disaster responder, for example -- a woman is automatically seen as "loose and available."

Wesbrock tried to communicate some basic safety training for women from NGOs for when they are alone or when they're traveling.

But organizational policy can have a big impact on a woman's safety, too, she said. "If NGOs in Pakistan had a policy where a woman could trust her supervisor to listen to her concerns, that would help."

CRS already has a safety policy allowing female staff members who feel threatened or uncomfortable at a guesthouse in Pakistan or another location to switch accommodations even if it means going to a more expensive place.

Wesbrock said she encouraged the women who attended the training to form a group and support each other. "You had 25 women who all understood what each other faced. This was their society. This was what they were up against."

Wesbrock added that she also encouraged the women to e- mail her if they needed someone to listen. "E-mail is often a safe way to communicate because most times you can immediately delete it," she said.


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