“I was certainly a very accidental war correspondent,” Politico’s chief international affairs columnist Susan Glasser told the audience at the Women in Conflict Zones panel at the opening of the Pulitzer Center Gender Lens Conference on June 3, 2017. Glasser, who moderated the panel, was introduced by Pulitzer Center senior editor Tom Hundley, whom she met 15 years ago at a hostile environment training outside of London. Hundley introduced Glasser after paying homage to female journalists like herself and Caryle Murphy, among others, who have committed themselves to a “particularly challenging form of reporting”- covering international zones of violent conflict.
“It’s good that women are a normal part of the landscape,” Hundley said, “but women still face unique challenges in conflict zones.”
Glasser drew from her own experiences reporting from war zones around the world as she asked panelists, including Pulitzer Center grantees Paula Bronstein, Sarah Topol, and Cassandra Vinograd, and Center for a New American Security’s Sarah Holewinski, to share the unique challenges they've faced as women reporting and working in the midst of conflict.
Bronstein reflected on her time as a Getty photographer and what Glasser referred to as the “macho culture” of war photography. Among hundreds of 2017 World Press Photo award entries, where Bronstein's photography took first place for the Daily Life category, only 15 percent of applicants were women. "World Press Photo is trying to raise the profile [of women]...I think there's a lot of effort in that direction, I would say." She applauded Daniella Zalcman’s Women Photograph as a resource for male editors to find and hire female photographers working around the world.
While the panel centered on this theme, panelists made another important, if not seemingly counterintuitive, point: as a female reporter, you’re often expected to cover “women’s issues,” which excludes the impact of conflict on the lives of civilian men and boys who are often put in just as much, if not more danger.
“A civilian, under international humanitarian law, is not a woman or a child—a civilian is a civilian,” Holewinski said. “A civilian is somebody who is not taking part in hostilities. And so, part of the frustration for me in working on the issue of civilian protection is that women and children get sort of lopped off into this separate, segmented population.” This means that NGOs looking for funding to work on civilian protection “pretty much have to do women and girls. And that’s very frustrating because I think we’re losing the principle of inherent dignity for all civilians who are not fighting.” While women in conflict experience widowhood, gender-based violence, and are often barred from education, “men are actually the ones who are often killed and injured because you can’t necessarily tell them apart from the fighters. They’re the ones who are kind of trying to protect their villages, [with] hugely high death rates, et cetera.”
Topol and other panelists nodded in agreement. “I think pretty frequently we get grouped into these categories of a ‘female war reporter,’ somebody who covers ‘women’s issues.’ And I think that it’s detrimental to both kind of our careers, and to the story itself,” Topol said.
She shared anecdotes from her reporting in Nigeria followed the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. “It was interesting to me when I was in edits on the story, and there was so much, media attention to the fact that all of this was happening to young girls in northern Nigeria. But what was actually absent from the story is that more boys are kidnapped and killed by Boko Haram, and that this is a huge problem.”
Topol was clear that this doesn’t mean “we shouldn’t focus on women’s issues, but that of course, when you start to really kind of pigeonhole either yourself or the topic of the conflict, it’s detrimental to the whole picture, because there are so many people in need in places like northern Nigeria.”
Panelists agreed that another detrimental pattern in conflict reporting is to refer to women as victims. “I find that to be incredibly problematic when you’re telling a story,” Topol said. On her reporting from the Ukraine, she spoke of “women who are kind of supporting the war effort, who have made a choice to participate, who, despite kind of being victims of violence find ways to assert their power in small ways. I think that frequently that falls out of the narrative as well, and it’s pretty dangerous because we end up seeing a one-sided picture.”
For Vinograd, making sure to include all pertinent voices can sometimes be the most difficult part of crafting a story. “I think a lot of times we will show up places...and people will kind of say like, ‘oh let’s do a women’s story, you want to talk to the women. And there have been times when I’ll have spent a week or two in some place and I’ll say, ‘where are the men’s voices? I hate having to focus on one and look for the other.”
In conflict, civilian women and female reporters alike are subject to challenges that differ for men. But an unforeseen conclusion from the panel was the frustration of being categorized as a "female" journalist in the first place.