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These days, women war reporters can be found doing jobs that are just as dangerous as their male counterparts - on the frontlines in Afghanistan, running dodgy bureaus in Iraq, translating in ravaged parts of Africa. But one area sets them apart: they are hiding sexual assault and harassment to continue getting assignments, reports Judith Matloff, who teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

According to Matloff, also a former correspondent for Reuters, female reporters are "targets in lawless places where guns are common and punishment rare." But the fear of being taken off an assignment or being treated differently is so great that women often do not tell their bosses.

A female photographer in India who was mobbed and had her clothes torn off her before an onlooker intervened did not tell her editors what had happened. "I put myself out there equal to the boys. I didn't want to be seen in any way as weaker," she told Matloff.

Local journalists face the added risk of politically motivated attacks. Rebels raped a woman that Matloff worked with in Angola for her perceived sympathy for the ruling party.

Because of the secrecy around sexual assaults, it is hard to judge their frequency - and public awareness is dire. Matloff knew of a dozen assaults, mostly in combat zones. The perpetrators included hotel employees, support staff, colleagues and even police officers and security guards. A survey two years ago by the International News Safety Institute found that of the 29 respondents who took part, more than half reported sexual harassment on the job. Two said they had experienced sexual abuse.

The lack of public discussion helps explain why there are no sections on sexual harassment and assault in the leading handbooks on journalists' safety by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, says Matlock. For women seeking security tips, Matlock recommends hostile-environment training. "No one tells women that deodorant can work as well as mace when sprayed in the eyes, for example, or that you can obtain doorknob alarms, or that, in some cultures, you can ward off rapists by claiming to menstruate," she advises.

Read Matloff's story in the May/June issue of the "Columbia Journalism Review":

(18 September 2007)

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