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GJS Emotional Self-Care and Personal Safety Director Sara Salam leads a debrief after a Mob Sexual Assault Scenario.

Sexual Assault Scenario Training
This class is essential for all staff, and especially for females who travel alone or in small groups.
                        Lee-Ann Gallarano, Population Services International
I was surprised how much I learned about myself. 
                        Loic Hofstedt, Agence-France Presse

Crimes of sexual violence occur around the world with alarming frequency to both women and, to a lesser degree, men. But how to best address such threats and train to mitigate them has been vexing. Global Journalist Security has developed a scenario-based training approach that we wish to share with our clients in both the journalism and NGO or non-governmental, nonprofit communities.
We do a few things differently when it comes to sexual assault. We bring men into the discussion rather than segregating trainees by gender, as some university courses and other training providers do, knowing that the issue of sexual assault can affect both women and men, and that the issue only tends to fester when left in the dark. We also teach and build upon the benefits of bystander intervention—an important role for men—in developing our own protocols to deal with sexual assault whether perpetrated by acquaintances or strangers, individuals or mobs.
When it comes to training and sexual assault, we have noted that the level of debate in the journalism and NGO communities is slightly different. For years now there has been a consensus among journalists that women must receive the same training, and enjoy the same rights to report and work as men. But when working with NGOs, we have been surprised to occasionally hear the view that “young women” and “female trainees” need to be protected and given a less intense form of training than men.
We struggle with this view, as young women are, by any measure, the ones more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped. Our private classes tailor training to meet clients’ needs, which may or may not include sexual assault mitigation. But our public classes extensively cover the issue. Of course, no sexual assault or hostile environments training can ever guarantee anyone’s safety. But solid, comprehensive training can help increase awareness and significantly reduce risk.
We are sharing our approach to the issue of sexual assault to be transparent, and to contribute to the conversation over how to best address this ongoing, unchecked problem. Of course, we welcome feedback and further discussion.
Even More Common than People Think
The 2011 mob sexual attack against CBS News correspondent Lara Logan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square drove the point home for both male and female journalists, as the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Lauren Wolfe, now with the Women Under Siege Project, documented in the CPJ report The Silencing Crime. But journalists are hardly alone.
Far more NGO workers have been sexually assaulted than most professionals in their own community realize, too. More than 1,000 young American women were raped or sexually assaulted while serving overseas in the Peace Corps in the 2000s, according to an ABC News 20/20 investigation. Professional aid and development workers have also endured sexual assaults. “Violence against humanitarian workers has reached record highs,” wrote Julia Brooks for the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action blog last year.
“One of the quietly held ‘secrets’ of NGO work is that rape and sexual assault happens much more often than anyone wants to admit,” says Dr. Anne Speckhard, a Georgetown University School of Medicine Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry, author and member of GJS’ training team. “Pre-deployment training can help diminish these tragedies.”
At GJS, both our training and people are interdisciplinary. Our international training team includes emotional self-care experts, rape and trauma counselors, in addition to more traditional hostile environments trainers including elite military instructors, decorated combat medics, and law enforcement, emergency services, and intelligence experts. Our team at GJS also includes experienced journalists, along with human rights, press and Internet freedom professionals.
Our experiences afford us insights that more military-oriented training providers may not share. We know from our own time on the ground how journalists, NGO workers and other civilians must operate on their own, usually without any support, and how they must learn to rely on a more nuanced skill set to navigate safely.
I highly recommend this training. These critical skills could potentially save your life, or someone else’s. Global Journalist Security's approach to training is very effective: learn-by-doing. Expect to get your hands dirty through many hands-on, applied scenarios that will make you feel the intensity of potential crises.

Dominic Kiraly, United States Institute of Peace

Science behind Stress Training
Research from various experts shows the value of realistic, stress-inducing scenario training. “Simply stated, stress training,” reads a report by the U.S. Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, “simulates the conditions that the trainee is likely to face in the operational environment.”
The scenarios are designed to gradually escalate in intensity to both challenge trainees and keep them engaged. The learning occurs during both the scenarios and the debrief and discussion afterward among trainers and trainees. The learning objectives include making better decisions, improving physical performance, fostering psychological resilience, and helping trainees learn about their own reactions to stress.
“In other words, the learning objectives” are “embedded within the scenarios,” the federal law enforcement report goes on, and they incorporate “’trigger’ events.”
The scenarios were totally stressful --I bailed on one of them-- but I feel much better equipped to handle myself in potentially dangerous situations.
Heather White of Population Services International

“To create resilience, an individual needs to have a stressful experience that deliberately pushes him outside of his comfort zone and then teach the body and mind to recover effectively from that experience,” maintains the Mind Fitness Training Institute, a group that works regularly with military, law enforcement and emergency services personnel.
Most GJS training scenarios last about 20 minutes, although the debrief sessions afterward among trainees and trainers can last up to an hour. The simulations build upon each other with increasing intensity, creating a suspension of disbelief, “where one becomes so immersed in the action,” as the federal law enforcement report notes, that the simulation exercise becomes a “believable, real environment.”
We both push trainees out of their comfort zone and work to suspend their disbelief. Trainers and vetted, professional actors play different roles as harassers, thieves, distraught relatives, predators, intimidators and attackers. They use pre-rehearsed verbal threats along with physical acts of aggression, and sometimes act alone and other times swarm or attack in packs. The result pushes, shoves or drags trainees, who may be inclined to giggle or laugh, past the point of irony to experience the scenario as being potentially real.
I have never been through such a thorough and informative security training. Thank you, GJS. The arc of my training went something like this: Scared coming in. Informed going out. Confident moving forward. I thought the entire training was remarkable and I think you are a great team. I was thoroughly engaged, even hooded, assaulted, threatened, and on my knees! I am grateful for your good work.
Ann Procter, United States Institute of Peace

Another learning outcome of our scenarios is to help trainees learn their own reactions to stressful encounters and how to manage them.
 â€œWhen faced with danger, the mind and body instinctively react and the neurobiology of a fight, flight or freeze response automatically kicks in,” says Dr. Speckhard. “Training and drilling responses under the most realistic conditions is the best way to prepare, as the experience lays down actual neural pathways that create self-protection habits to be later accessed during a real threat. “
GJS is the first hostile environments training provider oriented toward civilians to integrate emotional self-care awareness and tools into every aspect of our training. Learning to identify one’s physiological reactions to stress through training is the first step toward both improved decisions and performance.
It is hard to predict “one’s biological, psychological, and emotional reactions to life-and-death circumstances. But it is even more difficult to do so without adequate, realistic, and prior training,” reads a U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation report.
Learning how to manage one’s physiology and emotions under stress is the next step toward better decisions and performance.
“Without reality based training scenarios, the techniques would remain only concepts, and they would not translate or become accessible under actual stress,” says Sara Salam, a self-defense expert, rape crisis counselor and mind-body practitioner who is GJS Emotional Self-Care and Personal Safety Director. “Everyone is different. Someone who freezes requires a different toolset than someone who flees. Other tools are needed for those who fight. Being able to observe what actually happens under stress allows us to tailor the techniques so trainees walk away with confidence and a set of tools they can utilize in reality." 
Recently, even Western military experts have begun to recognize the value of mind-body techniques in improving performance under pressure.
“Self-regulation skills, like using positive coping thoughts and using relaxation techniques, will minimize the deteriorating effects of physiological and emotional stress reactions,” reads a NATO Research and Technology Organisation report by three Dutch military experts.
Of course, training civilians is distinct. Among our trainees, it’s not uncommon for some—men and women—to have a history of sexual assault or other traumatic events. Moreover, the scenarios may engender flashbacks and emotions including anxiety and fear. We deploy emotional self-care liaisons to pre-screen trainees before simulations start, giving them the opportunity to opt out, if they wish, in advance. We further monitor trainees during the scenarios, and help extract individuals who may indicate or show signs of being overwhelmed from stress.
The trainers were highly competent in explaining, demonstrating, and helping us to learn through doing. They were also very flexible and accommodating of our needs, questions, and comfort with simulations.
Giselle Lopez, United States Institute of Peace

GJS simulations are designed to give trainees the opportunity to learn by doing, and to experience their own emotional reactions to simulated threats in a safe and controlled space. After training, some trainees have reevaluated their own threshold of risk to better calculate the risks that they are willing to face. Other trainees have addressed triggered emotions to report being empowered from the experience.
It was intense, empowering, and I took home valuable, life-saving skills for mitigating danger to myself and those around m
Lee-Ann Gallarano, Population Services International

Yet other trainees, after having experienced their own reactions in the scenarios, have postponed going abroad or into potentially hostile environments until they have had time to process any prior trauma that was activated. The training can thus help trainees identify their own trauma flashpoints in the safe space of training before they end up being triggered in the field.
Sara Salam also provides trainees with up to two weeks of complimentary support after training as needed. During the course, we help trainees identify the signs of stress as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, knowing that PTSD, like sexual assault, is best addressed when brought into the light. For any recurring issues, we may recommend counselors for treatment, in addition to helping trainees navigate a range of treatment options including mind-body and traditional techniques.
“PTSD is not that hard to heal,” maintains Dr. Speckhard, “once the survivor identifies the trauma and he or she learns or is guided to process it.”
Our Sexual Assault Scenario Training
Although we have drawn from various sources to develop our sexual assault scenario training, our approach remains unique in many ways:
  • We incorporate sexual assault awareness, avoidance and deterrence skills, focusing on both individual and team responses, into all of our hostile environments training. Drawing upon experts with backgrounds in both self-defense and rape crisis counseling, we also listen to our own trainees and integrate their experiences.
  • We involve men in the discussions and debriefings about sexual assault, unlike many other hostile environments training providers who instead segregate the women from the men before addressing this sensitive topic. Research in the U.S. military and on university campuses shows that men must be involved in the conversation to begin changing the culture within which sexual assaults—whether by acquaintances or strangers—thrive.
  • Our broader discussion across genders also helps bring the stigma surrounding the issue of sexual assaults into the light and places responsibility for attacks squarely on the shoulders of those perpetrating assaults—rather than blaming survivors, or helping to enable them to blame themselves. That said, we pride ourselves on empowering men and women to work both alone and together to mitigate the risks.
  • We have learned from experts advising the U.S. military about the importance of bystander intervention to deter attacks by acquaintances, which are unfortunately common. We have built upon this notion to develop training designed to promote teamwork for women and men to work together to protect each other in the face of hostile strangers, from individuals to mobs or group sexual attackers.
  • We train for individual attacker scenarios. The methods imparted include a module on simple, but effective self-defense techniques, designed to both increase awareness and deter potential attackers largely through the use of demeanor and, especially, voice.
I was at an outdoor ATM on a city street and was just about to withdraw money when I noticed a man approaching quickly from behind and slightly to the side of me. His body was angled toward me, and I assumed he was going to ask for money, but I felt threatened by how quickly he was moving and the fact that he was approaching while I was at an ATM. I remembered what I had been taught in the Global Journalist Security training with Frank Smyth and Sara Salam, so I quickly put my arm out, palm forward and said in a very loud commanding voice, "DO NOT APPROACH ME WHILE I AM AT AN ATM." The man immediately stopped. He stared at me for just a moment, then ran away. I don't know what his intention was, but I felt happy and confident that I was able to stop his approach and protect myself this way.
Jenn Williamson, Counterpart International

  • We train for mob attacks. We design and implement complex, intense and chaotic training scenarios replete with trainers as well as vetted professional actors to create realistic simulations, to push trainees past the point of irony where their nervous laughter give way to the stress that comes from starting to feel that the scenario could be real. What they learn could then become habit to rely upon should they indeed encounter such a real-life threat.
  • We uniquely integrate psychological security and emotional self-care into all of our hostile environments training, focusing on factors and tools for resilience, including replicating sexual assaults, mob violence and captivity in our training scenarios. The training focuses foremost on awareness and risk reduction, factors for resilience, and how to recover from actual assaults.
  • We screen trainees prior to training, giving them the option to opt out of scenarios. We also always have emotional self-care liaisons on hand to monitor and support trainees during simulations, and to help them exit a scenario as needed.
  • We further provide trainees with up to two weeks of complimentary support as part of their training package to help them process any triggered emotions that may later arise, along with suggesting options for both self-care and treatment.
Learning Outcomes
The learning outcomes to our sexual assault training scenarios include:
  • Help trainees learn their own reactions to stress including whether they are inclined to fight or resist, flee or run, or freeze into inaction. We don’t judge anyone’s response. Instead we help them become aware of their own reactions and provide them with simple mind-body techniques to adjust their state-of-mind and corresponding reactions as may be needed.
I discovered that stress/adrenaline can make it difficult to focus on the task at hand, which enabled me to find some good coping mechanisms like steady breathing and constant talking with the teammates/conscious casualties. I also learned that I tend to have more of a fight response under pressure—so I can work on trying to defuse a situation when possible, rather than escalating it. Finally, the self care module helped underline the importance of not underestimating taking proper care of yourself when exposed to stressful situations—something I will now always bear in mind.
Loic Hofstedt, Agence-France Presse

  • Help begin a process—including suggested outside of class practice—of developing emotional memory as well as muscle memory from the scenarios that will allow them to access self-awareness and breathing tools in a manner far more valuable than any information they might have gleaned from, say, a PowerPoint presentation.
I feel well prepared to respond to a variety of situations in insecure or hostile environments and also to understand and address my own reactions to traumatic events.
Giselle Lopez, United States Institute of Peace

  • The emotional memory and lessons takeaway include:
  • Awareness of when a crowd dynamic changes to where one finds him or herself to be target.
    • Knowing:
      • the need to work in both teams and pairs or buddies.
      • how to stay together when crowds are dividing them or physically pulling them apart.
      • how pairs can seek space between individuals to force their way past attackers with minimal risk of escalating the situation or causing a further confrontation.
Private Classes (with or without Sexual Assault Avoidance Training)
Nonetheless clients and organizations may always request private classes where we tailor training to meet their specific needs, which may or may not include training to navigate sexual assault. But for many, if not most of our clients, sexual assaults remain an ongoing threat.
Women’s Rights Partners
We regularly train both Western and local women journalists in Washington, D.C. and East Africa for our partner organization, the International Women’s Media Foundation. As with all our hostile environments courses, sexual assault is covered in both the classroom and simulation exercises. We have also provided operational security advice to IWMF for the development of their emergency response mobile phone application Reporta, an app that is universal for journalists, human rights activists and NGO workers of any gender, and that was first developed by IWMF to support its own journalistic community of women.
Another one of our partner organizations is World Pulse, a community of women activists and bloggers addressing both local and global issues. Sexual assault, and the impunity that surrounds it, remains one of the key unresolved issues that World Pulse’s community of frontline women activists continue to address.
Our Own Expertise
GJS Executive Director Frank Smyth has also addressed the issue of sexual assault. In 2013 Smyth wrote “Journalists can help curb gender-based violence” about the need for more reporting to help bring sexual assaults out of the closet, on the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists where Smyth remains a senior advisor. In 2014 Smyth wrote “Finding the Courage to Cover Sexual Assault” for CPJ’s blog, about the challenges and risks of retaliation that reporters face covering sexual assaults in nations including India, Mexico and Somalia.
For more about Global Journalist Security, please see our website at For more about our team, please see
3-Day HEFAT Essential Skills

June 10 - 12Wed, Thu, Fri

Washington, DC 

June 15 - 17; Mon, Tue, Wed
Nairobi, Kenya

To reserve a place or inquire about a class, please send an email to gjs AT journalistsecurity DOT net, or call +1 202-352-1736. We accept major credit cards and other forms of payment.

Copyright © 2015 Global Journalist Security, All rights reserved.

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