“I Had to Accept That I Could Be Sexually Assaulted on the Job”

Five lessons in self-protection from an independent female journalist who covered rape in Haiti's post-quake tent camps

By Akiba Solomon Mar 03, 2011

When Lara Logan, CBS News’s chief foreign correspondent, was sexually assaulted doing her damn job on Tahrir Square last month, it served as a blunt reminder of the occupational hazards women face in conflict zones. (It also showed how hateful hacks and their hater interns fetishize Logan’s blonde hair and thinness in one breath then use these very qualities to minimize her assault in the next. But that’s another story…) In the aftermath, I’ve been thinking about how independent female journalists of color without Logan’s clout protect themselves in global hot spots. This isn’t self-indulgent musing: As traditional newsrooms–which remain overwhelmingly white and male–continue to shed jobs, indie journalists of color are going to be a key resource of quality, nuanced and ethical reporting on people who look like us.

In this spirit, I asked Carla Murphy, a Bajan New Yorker who spent six weeks last summer reporting on post-quake tent camps in Port-au-Prince, to share how she prepared to face rape and sexual assault.

Because she went to observe how deep-pocketed NGOs were operating in the camps, Carla–then a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism–didn’t go through an organization. Instead, she relied on a donation from her longtime mentor (a 60-something African-American woman); Haitian-American community contacts; and a few small grants. Five protective steps she took:

She Faced Facts:

"I had to accept the fact that I could be sexually assaulted or kidnapped on the job. I really had to have that conversation with myself. I’m not saying those things can’t happen in America, but I knew I was going to a place with no real law enforcement. So if I was dealing with a man who was inclined to rape someone, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t look at me and think, ‘I can do that to her.’ That’s what he would do to a woman who lives there–and I look just like her."

She Was Direct:

"I don’t speak kreyol and had never been to Haiti. But I got to know lots of Haitian-American women in Internet forums and at events. Rape is a sensitive issue, but I still asked them about it directly. I asked these women and Haitian-American men I knew to put me in touch with their relatives in Haiti. This is how I found a driver/translator who took me to the camps and kept me safe."

She Got Protection:

"I feel horrible saying this, but as a reporter you have to be calculated. As a black female reporter going into Haiti alone and unattached to any major news organization, you have to be really calculated. So although I was taught to be completely independent and at home I have that option, it’s not the same in Haiti. You have to depend on others to get through the day. This is particularly true for women. I still screened who I befriended but purposely hung out with men who had connections or reputations. That’s what counts there."

She Had Tough Talks…

"There were a few people who had trouble with me bringing up the sexual violence taking place in Haiti. I was accused of stereotyping Haitians and contributing to a negative image of them. These are valid concerns: Haitians do face a great deal of discrimination and some media use stereotypes to paint a negative picture. But it would have been stupid for me to put people’s fear of stereotyping ahead of my safety. I went to a place where rape is known to go unpunished; my first responsibility is to myself."

…And She Listened Closely:

"I didn’t go to Haiti to report on sexual violence, but Haitian women and some men brought it to my attention so I did it. While reporting, I was careful to keep the event within the specific context and I used the source’s voice in my piece as much as possible."

Read some of Carla’s work here and here.

And click here to learn more about how you can help fight sexual violence against Haitian girls and women.