Category Archives: Culture

GBV and how it appears in culture as well as reflections on cultures that support GBV

“Holier than thou” MSF needs its own #MeToo moment [Update]

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[Update: Sadly, MSF USA has chosen to edit the video that I link to in this blog. They say that this video that was never meant to be public but they want to keep the link up. However, they do not acknowledge anywhere or on the youtube link that they shortened it . This is extremely disappointing as it makes them seem as if they are covering things up and not serious about addressing the issues I raise here. I have notified them that I noticed and that I made a copy of the video before I published. in contrast, the female lead MSF UK and OC-Amsterdam have been very open to listen to women and men who have come forward since I published this to talk about their own experiences.]

This is my témoignage about the sexist culture of MSF Amsterdam where I worked from 2007-2011. Its the product of a lot of thinking and processing since the #metoo hashtag appeared, re-triggering lots of toxic memories and suppressed emotions. – Sarah Martin

The Beginning

I was thrilled when I got the news that there was a position available as Humanitarian Advisor at MSF Holland in the Humanitarian Affairs Department. This would be the perfect next step for me to build on my humanitarian advocacy work at Refugees International. Bringing my advocacy experience to an operational powerhouse like MSF that believed in speaking out and temoinage was truly a dream job for me.

I was not naïve as I entered MSF, however. I had been working for 4 years at Refugees International where I investigated and pursued issues that I found as I traveled to conflict zones and refugee camps in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, South Sudan and Northern Uganda. I wrote about aid being mislaid and petty feuds between agency heads meaning that IDPs in Liberia didn’t get a food distribution. I wrote about the failure of the government to consult with IDPS before forcibly moving them to new towns in Sudan. I felt like these things helped a bit. But my real passion was writing about gender issues and trying to support women who suffered in these humanitarian crises. I have focused on these issues in my career ever since.

On my first ever Refugees International field trip in 2003, I met a female MSF Head of Mission in Liberia who told me about the trafficking of Ukrainian women into Liberia and started me on the path of learning about sexual exploitation and abuse. This led to my writing the 2005 report “Must Boys be Boys? Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Missions,” in which I discussed the hyper-masculine culture of peacekeeping and how the international community had to stop turning a blind eye to the abuses of women and children in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I met with MSF midwives and female humanitarian affairs officers uncovering the rapes in Darfur in 2004. They demanded that we do something and join them in speaking out. So I wrote about that and met with policy makers globally demanding change, lobbying for greater pressure from the US government to allow raped women to receive medical care without a police report and to refer Bashir to the International Criminal Court. While still working for Refugees International, I went to MSF clinics in DRC in 2005 where nurses told me about the horrors that raped women faced. So I worked with my colleagues and a new Senator, Barack Obama, to sponsor a bill to place greater US attention to the Congo and the terrible way women were treated there.

When I presented Must Boys be Boys at a press conference in New York with Prince Ze’id of Jordan (now head of OHCHR), I was denounced in the New York Times by the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In my press conference, I lined up against the UN lawyers and spoke my truth on behalf of the women who were ignored and raped and left with peacekeeper babies as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations tried to drown me in stale jargon and committees, and status of force agreements.

My male bosses at Refugees International didn’t bother to come to NYC during this event but my female coworkers supported me as I did rounds of interviews with the BBC, CNN, and even Fox News. My male colleagues? Well, I had numerous discussions with some of them about this “gender thing:” Was it really important and couldn’t it tear down support for peacekeeping and weren’t men just like this and besides everyone knows that men use sex workers in the field and stop being so naïve!?! When Glamour magazine, a US fashion magazine that writes about women’s issues, put me in their magazine as Glamour Hero of the Month for March 2006, I was teased at work instead of supported. I had to actually ask the RI communications director to put something on the website about our work on gender and GBV in case any of the MILLIONS of women who read Glamour might want more information to support it.

All this led me to believe that I understood sexism and indifference, intimidation and abuse. And I thought that MSF with its storied Nobel Prize winning history of temoignage and speaking out on behalf of the least powerful in the world was the obvious choice for me to move forward in my fight to support vulnerable women and girls around the world.

I thought I knew about toxic cultures, but I did not.

Life at MSF

I started as a Humanitarian Affairs Advisor in the Amsterdam headquarters at MSF Holland in April 2007. Almost immediately, a number of events made me realize that I had joined a sexist and toxic organization.

About a month after starting, I went to my first big meeting where all the country offices came to town. MSF- Holland HQ threw a big party in the cafeteria. Afterwards, everyone headed to the Eik and Linde, a bar right next door to our headquarters. I watched in shocked amazement as the alpha males of MSF raced around trying to hook up and sleep with as many women as possible. I was confused but tried to justify the behavior thinking, “Well they are in from the field, they must be really confined there,” until I realized it was very much the men of headquarters who were doing the chasing around.

During this big meeting, my department called a mandatory work dinner. I was excited to socialize with my new colleagues but then again shocked and confused when my new male boss introduced me to “the Game”. We were expected to go around in a circle and list from 1-10 who we wanted to sleep with at MSF. I thought it was some bizarre form of hazing. And as an American, I felt like ‘– wait – is this acceptable in European work places?’ Because in the US where I had worked previously, if a male boss tried to make his female employees listen to who he wanted to sleep with and list who they wanted to sleep with at a work event, they would be fired. But he was American, he knew this. And wow – all the women he named were about 20 years younger than him and were working in the front desk as volunteers at the office. So was this just a European thing?

And then the married advisor on the “cell” where I worked started going out drinking late with a male friend and with my much younger female intern (who confessed to me that the relationship was not platonic after many drinks out late at night). I was not surprised to hear later that he had been having lots of affairs and later left his wife for someone younger who worked with MSF.

And then there was the senior manager now in a position of power at another MSF section, who I was to “advise,” who also had a partner (and mother of his child) working in the office. I kept hearing about his numerous affairs with women. Field directors told me that they wished he was more discreet because he left all the text messages of the women on the shared country mobile phone whenever he left the country. I was disgusted by this blatant macho shagging around and was complaining about it to a dear friend at the organization, not knowing that she was secretly dating him and had no idea that he was sleeping with other women. I regretted causing her so much pain but mostly I started hating him for making her keep their relationship secret and not telling her about his affairs. She was angry at him and soon their relationship became a huge public drama in the office. The mother of his child had to watch humiliated as my friend broke up with him and everyone began to talk about it. My friend suffered anew when they got back together, only for him to cheat on her shortly thereafter with another woman in the organization who he met while traveling. To make matters worse, he made sure that MSF Headquarters created a job for his new partner in my friend’s department, forcing her to see her replacement regularly.

Throughout this sordid drama I kept asking myself: What kind of management would allow all this drama in their department? Aren’t managers also supposed to be in charge of the morale of their employees? Don’t they want people focused on the work, which is supposed to be about saving lives in humanitarian emergencies? Isn’t our work difficult and challenging enough without constant drama about all these sexual relationships on top of it?

Apparently not at MSF. Male managers – particularly those in the operations department – constantly prioritized their sexual pleasure over their job. Further, their male friends supported and encouraged it, or at the very least kept silent about it so as not to jeopardize their own climb through the ranks.

I recall trying to give a session at the Senior Management Training on the code of conduct and explain why you can’t have sex with sex workers or beneficiaries at MSF – only to be introduced and immediately knocked down to size by one of the HR men: “Here comes Sarah from HAD to tell you why you can’t do all of the things you want to do that are fun.” Fun. Oh yes, there is nothing more fun than resorting to sex work in order to support yourself and your family due to lack of other opportunities for women in the workplace. And listening to these men argue with me about the morality of paid sex work and “what about?” me about sex work in Amsterdam where it was legal. Always playing “devil’s advocate” and “poking holes” always challenging me, leaving me feeling angry and frustrated at the end of every session because I didn’t have a quick enough response to convince them. And I wasn’t enough of a “cool girl” just to go along with it. And feeling super grateful to the “one decent man” who I wish I could name, when he finally had enough of the disrespect coming from my training participants and told them that he agreed with me and shut them down. They respected him. He was a man. He was operations. He was everything I wasn’t.

But unlike the “one decent man”, a man with a good reputation and well respected, these very same male managers used their power as an aphrodisiac and women, who were ambitious and wanted to get ahead, knew they had to play this game of flattering them and flirting with them and even sleeping with them in order to advance. A lesbian friend of mine witnessing one of the debauched field-HQ parties asked me, “How do you do it? Look at these men. They are disgusting.”

My memories: Drunk married men slamming down shots and showing off to women always much younger than them. Sordid affairs. Shaking hands from alcohol in the morning. Lined faces from too many late nights at the local pub, the Eik and Linde.

The Awakening

Being in this environment took its toll. Mental health officers kept quitting. It’s like working in a junkie ward, one of them said to me. A male friend, who eventually burned out and quit MSF, saw me in a very bad place in the coffee room one day. He told me a story about working in the field with a bunch of toxic people and how someone took pity on him and invited him to dinner. Then he invited me to dinner. I couldn’t tell him why I was suffering even though I was not alone. It helped just to be in the company of a decent person.

Another woman at the Psychological Support Unit also helped. She listened and got me to a therapist. But she was told by her sexist boss, that this was not her job. Not her job to help the many of us who turned to her about MSF’s sexist and toxic culture? She was forced out. The same boss told another young women who worked at MSF that maybe she wasn’t cut out for humanitarian work when she asked to leave her placement early because male colleagues were harassing her, stalking her and issuing death threats to her. It wasn’t living in a mud hut in the middle of the Congo that was the thing this woman couldn’t deal with. It was the harassment from her male colleague. Ironically, he now positions himself as the champion to end sexual harassment in the organization, finally coming on board to the issue after 20 years there.

But still I stayed at MSF because there were all the people I had admired so much in the field doing amazing work to support vulnerable people in hard to reach places like Central African Republic and Syria and South Sudan. So many strong and good people. “It’s just a few rotten apples in the barrel.” I reasoned to myself.

So we fought to have trainings on sexual violence response for our sisters in the field (because it was almost only always sisters). And we fought to have a policy in place that all responses had to be prepared to respond to sexual violence in all cases. On my first field visit to the Central African Republic, our midwives and women told me about the high levels of violence against women there but no one wanted to do anything about it. The mental health officer was instructed not to address the issue. And I fought another female coworker for the right to support the women working in our rape clinics in DRC who weren’t allowed to communicate directly with me who could support them in their work. And I fought another colleague to go to India and meet the staff who had taken up addressing sexual violence on their own (without much support form headquarters). And fought for the Papua New Guinea project that was set up specifically because rape was so high there that the violence was worse than many of the places we worked. When I visited there, I had to argue with the male head of mission that “tribal violence” was not more important than the domestic violence and rape that the women we were trying to help were dealing with. They were always looking for a reason not to have to address violence against women. Finally, after so many women fought them to keep the Papua New Guinea program open, it was closed — “handed-over” to an indifferent government who always had the resources to respond but chose not to for years. What happens to those patients now? Who will care for those women, speak out on their behalf, and try to ameliorate the pain of rape and violence?

The Aftermath

And what happens to the MSF women who used to tell me after our trainings, when I raised self-care and sexual harassment and safety as an issue, about the manager who would try to break down their doors after a night of drinking, or who thought he owned them, threatening to end their precious humanitarian careers if they said anything? The senior executive at the bar late at night who stuck his hand up their skirt and leered at them knowingly? These women, usually in the field for the first time – often just left. They were too afraid that they would damage MSF if they said anything. They were willing to accept the damage themselves rather than risk the reputation of MSF. They kept silent with their stories of guys on the emergency team (the biggest cowboys of a cowboy agency) and notorious “womanizers” and talked about it only late at night with other women – passing on advice on how to manage these men. “Everyone knew” but these men are allowed to continue to harass and pursue women in the field. Their sexual pleasure is more important than committing to a professional humanitarian response and a workplace free from sexual harassment.

Speaking of refusing to committing to a workplace free from sexual harassment, watch Jason Cone, the current executive director of MSF USA here, on this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2133&v=46X7BSoedEM) explain how he REFUSES to implement a resolution about making MSF sexual harassment free because “we are an organization full of human beings and there is no possibility for us to create an environment that is 100% free of those things… These things happen. I cannot commit to this because I have not seen a place where these things do not happen. The intent can be there but I will not commit to it.”

In other words, no different from the UN peacekeeping missions I investigated – boys will be boys. Despite the pleas of the MSF women trying to introduce this resolution, maintaining that MSF needs to be aspirational and change the culture, he continuously pushes back. How is he still the director in the litigious USA of all places when he refuses to address this culture? He makes a personal pledge to follow up on any reports, putting the burden on the women to come forward first and trust him. But will he do anything to change the culture? No. “I’m just telling you aspirations are good but human reality is what we are dealing with. I cannot deliver a workplace free of abuse of power or sexual harassment, anyone who claims they can is lying.”

How many women have to come forward though? One of the men who worked with me had three complaints filed by three different women against him after a field visit. The punishment? He was told he would have to travel with our female boss if he went to the field. So he moved to a different section of MSF working in the field  – where who knows what happened to him. Certainly his career didn’t get hurt after these complaints. Coming forward and reporting, as most women know, means YOU leave the organization and nothing happens to the man – they bounce on to another position in the organization.

And I realize now, after I left in 2011 (after 6 months of sick leave that led to a failed re-integration), that I was willing to be damaged and absorb it myself rather than hurt the reputation of the organization. I loved MSF too much. But it was the love of a person in an abusive relationship with a toxic organization that prioritized the libidos and egos of its operational men over the emotional lives and careers of the idealistic young women who came to work there.

MSF was an ugly place to work. I have to admit that even mutual support and solidarity among the women was lacking. When I reached out to other women to see if they felt the same way I did, I left myself open to accusations of being a “typical American prude,” with a female colleague mocking my interest in responding to violence against women as my “gender thing.” Other women who I had looked up to in the organization were openly hostile because they were the ones who “owned” sexual violence response as an issue. They didn’t see the need to build a network to support each other from the men who would not be happy if their privilege was challenged. It was too dangerous to be seen as one of the feminist women bitching about the men’s behavior and how they acted. That might throw them out of the “cool girl” club and stop their climb to the top.

Time’s Up

So, MSF. You have turned a blind eye and let all this abuse and misbehavior continue. Women have tried to work through your systems, have put forward resolutions at general assemblies, have reported abuses, have fought for more programs to address gender-based violence. And what’s the answer? It sounds like year after year of “be patient” and “boys will be boys.” Not so different from the UN after all.

Well, time is up. The culture in MSF must change. Just as medical professionals know that you must lance a boil in order to allow the infection to drain out and the body to heal, we must lance the festering boil of sexist culture at MSF and allow the suppurating men who prey on women there to drain out so the organization can heal and do its work the way it was meant to be. The idealistic women working in MSF, the idealistic women donating their hard earned money to MSF and the vulnerable women and children in humanitarian zones depending on MSF deserve better than this.

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Spotlight: It’s time to change this “boys will be boys” culture

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During the 16 Days of Action to End Gender-Based Violence in 2015, I was asked to conduct a session on gender-based violence for a group of UN humanitarian aid workers who had gathered for a week long training. I was given 90 minutes and was also asked to address Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by humanitarian aid workers. The session was nowhere near long enough to do either topic justice and as I only had about 20 minutes left in my time, I presented the Secretary General’s Bulletin on Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and the 6 core commitments. After I finished my presentation, the room exploded on the point on mandatory reporting and the discussion around breaking the silence around this issue by reporting. REPORT? REPORT TO WHO?! WHAT WILL THEY DO? NOTHING!

The participants felt demoralized and angry about what they saw as the complete lack of accountability in the UN to address this issue. Forget trying to protect the most vulnerable in the world – the displaced and beneficiaries that we work for – what about having some prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse for ourselves? How can we do our job when we suffer from sexual abuse too?

A particularly outspoken participant challenged why we even report when we will most likely get fired for doing so and talked a lot about the lack of accountability of senior managers (she was speaking from personal experience – having been assaulted herself by her boss). She gave examples of people getting away with it in numerous stations she had been in and of whistleblowers being punished. Other workshop participants, both male and female, talked about how people get promoted or even moved on if the issue is brought up. Everyone had an example of sexual exploitation and abuse by an aid worker being ignored by their managers or even experiencing their manager doing the abuse. I myself have heard numerous stories throughout my career as an aid worker – in both NGOs and the UN*.

I offered up a spirited defense along the lines of “If you don’t break the silence and speak up on behalf of the vulnerable, the system will never change.” I tried to rally them that we must all advocate and act to change the system. I was able to give one example of places where people were fired. But in general, they are right. They don’t trust the system and they don’t even know what the reporting mechanisms are.

I reached out to a number of people I know who work on this issue to see what they thought. The general perspective was pretty bleak. The current system is so broken – so what is the point in even trying to report or set up systems?

With that attitude, its no wonder that we don’t see many systems in place and that no one reports. I asked for some positive examples of where reporting has worked so I  can try to encourage others to start taking this issue up and not feeling like they are alone and will lose their job if they report.

I got some very interesting responses:

“The lack of whistle blower protection is a major (and some may argue intentional) flaw in the Secretary General’s bulletin.”

“Unfortunately, no examples [of perpetrators being held accountable] come to mind.. I do recall that we did receive a similar training and had an explosion at the staff counselor over the same issue – this was about 5 years ago.. Nothing has changed – abusers are promoted to get ‘rid of the problem.'”

“The only time I reported something the Human Resources person informed me that the person I reported had many reports against him and that this had been recorded on his performance review with a recommendation to remove him but that the SG’s office (this was in Kofi Annan’s time) had over-ridden the recommendation and that the guy was promoted into the very senior position he was in when I reported him (for having a local girlfriend who was at most 16, using UN resources to shuttle her to/from school, harassing local female staff members among other things).”

“The lack of accountability starts from the performance appraisal system. Managers are so afraid of raising ‘behavioral issues’ because of the possibility of rebuttal and endless cases in internal tribunals that too often the method ‘out and up’ is applied. It has to be said also that SEA is difficult to prove, so most ‘cases’ will never reach the threshold to be accepted as such.”

What is going on? Why is it appropriate for male co-workers in the humanitarian aid sector -NGOs and the UN but it seems to be particularly egregious within the UN – to act like unenlightened stereotypes of men from half a century ago? People outside the industry are surprised when they hear that an organization that is affiliated with “do -gooders” actually struggles with sexual harassment inside.

The humanitarian aid world’s dirty little secret is getting less secret.

Sexual harassment in the humanitarian world is not a new issue. On the contrary, it is a problem that has been quietly discussed amongst the humanitarian community for years. If the UN and the rest of the humanitarian world cannot manage to deal with sexual harassment of employees, how can we possibly deal with the larger issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of our beneficiaries, the most vulnerable?

This is both a systematic and an individual agency problem. There have been a couple of events that lead me to believe that the time is right to push hard for reform.

  • The Guardian’s “Secret Aid Worker” series and the “Fifty Shades of Aid” Facebook group (with over 4000 participants) have become places where aid workers and gender-based violence activists can publicly share some of the stories that are normally just passed along within missions after a few drinks. We’re turning a spotlight on the issue and finding that we’re not alone.
  • Megan Nobert courageously came out and spoke about her sexual assault by a fellow aid worker and the UN’s refusal to do anything. This experience galvanized her to create a movement called Report the Abuse. While, there have been other campaigns and projects in the past that have addressed incidents of sexual violence in conflict zones (some of which have led to the development of sexual exploitation and abuse policies for humanitarian staff), these efforts have laid an essential foundation upon which this current campaign rests. This project is about also harassment, assault and other forms of gender-based violence, regardless of whether the incident is experienced by a local or expatriate employee, and regardless of the gender, class or position of the survivor. This project has launched a website, with a linked survey, which attempts to begin addressing these questions.
  • The NGO Aids-Free World has revived attention on the horrific problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers*. Anders Kompass from OHCHR publicly fought being suspended for leaking a confidential report that documented the rape of young children by UN peacekeepers in Central African Republic. Aids-Free World is lead by Stephen Lewis, the former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, who is a very outspoken critic of the UN and they have a project called Code Blue that is focused on this.  They are calling for an independent body to investigate the UN since they can’t be trusted to do this themselves.
  • On Saturday, December 5th, 2015, eighteen women working as humanitarian aid workers met together in Conakry, Guinea (one of my outspoken training participants was one of them). They called themselves “Women in Aid” and represent diverse nationalities, positions, fields, religions, ages. And, as they discovered during the course of their meeting, they all shared significant challenges as women in the humanitarian field. Everyone expressed having, at some moment in their career, been discriminated against, harassed, confronted with sexual violence in or around the workplace.  To find out whether or not these were 18 isolated cases and how many women in the humanitarian field have similar experiences and concerns – they launched a survey for women aid workers.
  • Karin Landgren wrote a report called “The Lost Agenda: Gender Parity in Senior UN Appointments” that noted that the rhetoric of UN achievements has overshadowed the reality.  A list of senior officials indicates that the UN designates some 80-plus persons worldwide as undersecretaries-general  (USGs), and over 100 as assistant secretaries-general (ASGs).  Almost twenty years ago, the UN made a commitment to achieving gender parity in managerial and decision-making roles by the year 2000. This target was missed, so subsequent resolutions aimed for parity in “the very near future”, except for the category of Secretary-General’s Special Representatives and Special Envoys, which was to be gender-balanced by 2015. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that he has appointed more women to senior UN positions than ever. In 2011, he told a gathering that the UN’s top humanitarian official, high commissioner for human rights, head of management, top lawyer, and “even our top cop, are all women.”  Today in 2016, we’ve actually gone backwards. They are all men. Commitments to gender equality have become a joke.
  • A group of senior gender advisors deployed within different agencies in the UN read Landgren’s article on the lack of gender parity in senior UN appointments and wrote a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon asking him to act up on it.  There is a petition supporting this letter that you can also sign here.

So what are the linkages between all these things?

The lack of gender equality in the UN  including the lack of women in senior leadership positions is one factor that may be leading to sexual harassment of staff being ignored and swept under the carpet (although having women managers doesn’t guarantee action). This ‘boys club‘ allows a culture that ignores this issue to flourish. While reporting systems are set up in some places, very few people trust the system and are willing to report because there is very little action that actually takes place and the perpetrator is rarely punished. People are afraid that if they come forward they will be labeled ‘trouble maker’ and be fired.  The general perception is that the humanitarian aid world is a ‘boys club’ that protects the perpetrators. Victims and whistle blowers are pressured to drop their cases. Often the unbelievable lethargy of the bureaucracy stifles the investigation until it’s all been forgotten and the victim left to languish in a limbo. Sometimes the perpetrators are just transferred (remind you of the Catholic Church and the film Spotlight, anyone?

We must hold someone accountable – we cannot allow the system to sweep it under the carpet any longer. Changing the “boys must be boys” culture cannot be done by allowing the boys club to investigate themselves. There must be outside pressure and attention to force them to reform.  All of these issues are linked and we have to push for change now.

  • Keep the spotlight on this issue. Start discussions! Ask your agency what the process is to address sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Ask them to schedule a staff wide meeting to explain the procedures.
  • Help document the scope of the problem. Participate in the surveys for “Women in Aid” (for women only) and “Report the Abuse” to document your experiences. Encourage others to do so as well.
  • Call for the Secretary General to do something about changing this boys club culture. Sign the UN Gender Equality Petition and circulate it with others. Put this issue on the agenda for the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit.
  • Financially support watchdog organizations who are keeping this issue on the agenda such as the Report the Abuse project (https://www.gofundme.com/c54tvwj8) and the Aids-Free World (http://www.aidsfreeworld.org/Donate.aspx)
  • Create a movement – Share your ideas to change this culture in the comments section.

Shine a spotlight on this dirty little secret and let’s change the culture together. In the words of Megan Nobert “Let’s create a humanitarian environment free from sexual harassment, discrimination, exploitation and abuse.” Break the silence and take action!

 

 

 

 

 

* In 2005, I wrote a report about sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers based on my travels through West Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Haiti called “Must Boys be Boys: Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN Peacekeepers“. It spoke about the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by civilian personnel being harder to address and the culture of “hyper-masculinity” that encouraged these abuses.

 

Reflecting on healing ourselves

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One of the issues I feel strongly about is supporting other women and men who work in the field of gender-based violence in emergencies. I went through a burn out in 2010 while working at MSF Holland as the sexual violence adviser and humanitarian affairs specialist.  It kicked in during a GBV sub-cluster meeting after the Haiti earthquake when the burden of what I was seeing, combined with the grief from losing my father, and the insanity that is working in humanitarian organizations combined in a toxic way (I think my dear Lina Abirafeh was chairing that meeting – it was nothing personal! You’re a fine coordinator!)
I was lucky. MSF provided support on psycho-social issues for staff and the Dutch government gives paid sick leave to recover from burn-out. I got psychological support from a great therapist paid for by my health insurance and picked out by MSF. I saw a “work doctor” once a month who said “sleep, ride your bike, go see art, spend as much time outside as you can and whatever you do, don’t check work emails or talk about work.”
After six long months were I alternately cried and slept a lot and then started taking my doctor’s advice – I started to heal. But I never was really the same again. I like the Japanese idea of kintsukuroi to think about those broken places and how its changed me.
I’ve been talking and thinking about this issue a lot and so have other people. So I was excited to get this email from Leora Ward – someone I’ve known in the GBV in Emergency field for a long time. It’s an amazing new venture and I’m signing up. I hope you’ll consider it too.
From Leora:
“I wanted to share with you my newest creation and passion- a weekend retreat for women in our line of work- so that you might consider coming and/ or sharing this information with other women in your network. My hope is to work with and welcome humanitarian workers and service providers who may benefit from my support. This retreat is just one of those ways and also a very exciting entry point!
 
You may know that I started a business, Healing in Service, in the last few months to support women in the humanitarian field to better prioritize themselves; shift their lives towards abundance, connection, and energy; and create a movement of people who serve others with inner peace and joy. You can find more information about the work and get a feel for what I am hoping to achieve at www.healinginservice.com
 
The bottom line, is that I work with women who are serving in important ways but are also looking to move beyond their work to integrate different parts of their lives, personally and professionally, and are wanting more skills to live in gratitude alongside their desire, pleasure, and deepest longing in the outside world. 
 
I want to support these women to:
 
– Gain clarity about their immediate needs and values
– Check-in with their bodies and their stories in the present moment
– Heal and recover from past experiences that are still with them
– Determine ways to nurture, love, and be good to themselves
– Move gracefully through transition and periods of instability
 
If you know women who may resonate with this work or message and are looking for some additional resources in their lives, whom you think might be interested in this retreat, and who are ready for making the choices that will bring them to deeper alignment with their passion, needs, and values- it would be great to know more about them. I am really eager to find women who want to join me along this path.”

Please  feel free to share this with others and contact Leora through her website or her facebook page to get more information.

 2016 can be the year when we realize capacity means more than just training but we have to look at ourselves holistically.

Let’s get with it! Sexism and Gender Equality Mainstreaming in the Humanitarian Sector

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  • A senior gender-based violence (GBV) advisor finds herself sitting in a Humanitarian Country Team meeting with the heads of UN agencies discussing how to program CERF funds. At this meeting she is explicitly told by the head of a large UN agency that GBV work is “not life-saving” so shouldn’t be considered for funding (despite the clear CERF guidelines that note that it fulfills the life-saving criteria).
  • Attending a workshop full of gender advisors means that the coffee breaks are filled with weary and cynical talk about frustration at the inability get a meeting with the humanitarian coordinator because gender is seen as just “window dressing” to appease headquarters and a box to be checked rather than actual commitment to improving gender inequality.
  • A recent story in the Guardian about sexual harassment in the UN relates a story of sniggering senior management men mocking a gender presentation and then commenting on their young female colleague’s attractiveness.
  • GBV specialists often talk about being denied seats on the assessment team and fighting with other agencies to include basic questions about what is happening to the women during natural disasters and conflict settings. “We’re doing an urgent life-saving assessment, we don’t have time to deal with that. You can wait,” is usually the justification.

The gender equality and GBV field (which is staffed predominantly with women) abound with stories like this. Our common refrain: Why is it so difficult to get otherwise smart and committed humanitarians onboard with supporting gender equality and fighting the repercussions of gender inequality – i.e. gender-based violence? Is it due to sexism?

The negative reaction to and lack of understanding about the word “gender” and its feisty sister “feminism” have been written about and discussed in the past year (high profile feminists like Beyoncé helping the “f word” break into the mainstream media in the USA in 2014). If you ask most humanitarians what they think about “gender mainstreaming” or “GBV specialists,” eyes begin to roll and the anecdotes about “shrill angry GBV women” come out – usually from men but also from women. I always wonder – do other sectors in the humanitarian system get such reactions? Do people who are passionate about hand-washing in the Water and Sanitation sector get laughed at by fellow humanitarians? If you care passionately about finding environmentally friendly ways to build health clinics, do people run out of the room covering their ears when you bring it up? Why is addressing gender inequality and women’s issues seen as so toxic and unrelated to humanitarian work and why is it difficult to discuss this within the humanitarian aid system?

The humanitarian field’s resistance to meaningfully working on gender equality and its lack of understanding about mainstreaming gender equality into the humanitarian work extends to the way the field – and even our own gender colleagues – talks about the issue. We “do gender” now and we forget about the equality part of the equation. There are “gender advisors” who can’t tell you the difference between sex and gender but whose job involves disaggregating data by sex and age (without really understanding why we are doing that). Projects are submitted that have sprinkled the words “women, girls, boys and men” (or my new least favorite acronym wgbm) throughout and are seen as “promoting gender equality”. Somehow, we have had to turn our work on fighting for equal rights for women and girls in the humanitarian response into a less threatening technocratic “ doing gender” which more acceptable than actually talking about sexism and inequality and the discrimination against women and girls’ needs.

Is it due to sexism? The internalized culture of sexism within the humanitarian system – particularly within the UN has been described in a number of articles that have examined the nature and challenges of gender mainstreaming in international development organizations*. These articles have focused on the sexist culture within the UN but NGOs are far from exempt from these charges. Does this sexism influence the ability for us to address gender equality in a meaningful way in our work? I would argue yes. Despite 15 years work on “mainstreaming” gender equality into humanitarian systems, working gender is still seen as a niche issue within humanitarian work and is always linked to “women’s issues” which somehow carries with it a negative connotation linked to the word feminism.

The current fashionable way to combat this unpopularity seems to be the introduction of working with men and boys into the work (although gender activists have been working on this since 1999 at least when I attended my first Inter-agency Gender Working Group at USAID). At the 2014 UK Global Summit on to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, there was (some would say) an overemphasis of the plight of men and boys who are sexual violence victims in conflict which current statistics show us only amount to about 10% of survivors in big emergencies like the DRC and in national surveys in developed countries amount to about 3% of survivors. There’s a push by some UN agencies (encouraged by certain actors) to demand equal attention and funding for male survivors with female survivors despite the evidence that the victims are overwhelmingly female. Working with men and boys is the new “microfinance” and exciting for donors and the media. There was an announcement of a “ground breaking” UN conference on gender equality that would only allow men (making it different from most conferences that aren’t about reproductive health or gender – how?) and women’s rights activists have raised concerns about the increased emphasis on men and boys diverting funding earmarked for female-oriented projects.

Academics* have highlighted the challenges of gender equality mainstreaming in our humanitarian system.  They argue that our approach has ignored the way gendered inequalities are deeply woven into the fabric of the international system and that our bureaucratic method of “mainstreaming” has drowned out the voices calling for gender equality. This has effectively “neutered” gender equality work to make it more palatable. Sexism has also seemed to be active in the creation of the newest United Nations agency: UN Women aka the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. A 2010 paper from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex analysed the experience of feminists within the UN struggling with the institutional sexism of the UN bureaucratic machine. Denied seats at the table and consistently given lower job rankings (the ultimate power currency in the UN system), UN Women has struggled to find its place. At the creation of UN Women, many civil society organizations urged the new agency to adopt a different approach to working at country level to UN agencies in the past. Its approach should be transformative, leading to actual change. Stacking the ranks with old school former UNDP managers doesn’t seem to be achieving this goal.

Even the media (not always a place of gender sensitivity) notices the sexism at the UN, “Gender equality is honored in name both inside and outside [the United Nations], but is more likely to be honored in the breach inside. At least one senior official still pats women on the head, and the women’s rooms were situated by someone who must have had an earlier career creating mazes or running scavenger hunts.” Recent stories about sexism in humanitarian agencies in The Guardian and the comments by female aid workers on the article, in Facebook groups, and in face to face awareness-raising sessions I have conducted confirm this.

I have also seen and heard about this in my own work in GBV and gender equality work in different agencies and countries. I fought long and hard at Refugees International to have the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse in UN peacekeeping missions to be taken seriously and finally convinced my two male bosses to allow me to write about it in our peacekeeping work. The topic was mostly dropped when I left and 10 years later, the problems addressed in my report Must Boys be Boys? Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Missions don’t seem to have changed at all. Attending the high-level session on this topic at the UK Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was a depressing step back 10 years into the past. At MSF, I faced complete indifference by some of my male and female colleagues when I raised issues of sexual harassment, understanding domestic violence and marital rape or sexual exploitation (At MSF, we weren’t allowed to talk about the “g word” or gender-based violence but only about sexual violence). “Why are you always going on about this feminism thing?” one female colleague asked me, half joking but also half serious.

I had a long discussion with a friend (let’s call her Cassandra) who also works as a gender specialist. “There is a lack of understanding of how feminism and gender equality are related,” she said, “The two go hand in hand, but the UN system does not want that. It wants gender equality, but the watered down way without shaking the tree, rocking the boat, or changing the status quo.” I agreed with her – sharing my own experiences of how people sprinkle the word “gender” throughout their work without a seeming understanding of what it means. We were worried – the risk is that the word “gender” and the philosophy of feminism have become divorced. The more we disassociate “gender” with gender equality, the less it becomes about fighting for women’s rights and the more its just a checkbox.

Feminism seems to be a dirty word at the UN. “I honestly don’t know what is so radical about wanting equality, for women to be treated with dignity and respect,” Cassandra lamented before we moved onto our normal discussions of delicious foods we had eaten recently. But this idea that “Feminism is the problem” persists – evaluations of the Gender Capacity (GenCap) project in 2010 and 2011 both noted complaints from UN agencies who had hosted Gen Cap advisors about the “feminist” agenda of some as if it were negative thing that distracted from mainstreaming a gender perspective in humanitarian work.

It is not just gender advisors who feel this way.In a comprehensive survey launched by Oxfam before the creation of UN Women, an activist said “we are seeing an increase in “subtle patriarchal resistance” within organisations that are mainly male dominated. We have observed the systematic marginalisation of women’s rights organisations – naming them as “radical” in their approach to women’s issues. The agenda for achieving women’s rights and gender equality are compromised by the type of people appointed to such positions.” At GBV gatherings and meetings, specialists mention that any attempts to push for more attention to GBV in emergencies are often seen as being “pushy, too feminist, or negative.” One GBV specialist that I know said “If you get angry as a person, they say it reflects poorly on the sector. [Compare their complaints to those] about a WASH manager who washes his hands all the time, that’s positive! He’s clean. But when you mention sexist attitudes… when you are a ‘GBV person’ in a big group- its hard to be that person.” Others agreed noting “GBV and gender specialists are viewed as a bunch of chest-beating activists” and saying that we have to be “agreeable” and “nice” to get other sectors to work with us. In the quest to be palatable to this humanitarian system, in order to fit into this male oriented system we are told that we need to behave in a certain way. “Be agreeable – don’t rock the boat.” Gender equality and GBV activists comply and thus we too perpetuate the status quo and fail to push for transformative gender equality.

At a recent GenCap workshop, we were encouraged during an exercise to step out of our “nice roles” while advising as a way to explore different ways to be effective. It felt uncomfortable at first for me. Like many in our overwhelmingly feminine sector, I sometimes feel that I have to play to traditional gender roles in order to be respected, liked and accepted and heard otherwise our message of equality for women will not be accepted. No one wants to be the “bitchy Gender advisor” yet in the immortal words of Tina Fey “Bitches get stuff done.” There is this push by some humanitarians and even supported by some gender people for us to be less feminist, less activist, less focus on women’s empowerment and to be more diverse to the point that diminishes our expertise and focus. Last time I checked, women and girls were still the oppressed and marginalized, controlled and sexually abused due to their gender.  Are we supposed to ignore this?

The strategy of divorcing “gender” work from the fight for feminism and women’s equality in order to make it more palatable may have backfired in achieving our goals. “Gender mainstreaming” sometimes seems to have moved away from addressing gender inequality and fighting for a real effort to change culture and has led to “gender” being a technocratic term that means almost nothing aside from saying ‘women, men, boys, and girls’ throughout applications to the CERF in hopes of getting a “2A” on the gender marker.

Maybe its time we actively embrace feminism (but not just white women’s western feminism but a truly global feminism that is linked to anti-colonialism) and link up in solidarity with movements to liberate women and embrace women’s equality in the countries where we work rather than turning “mainstreaming gender” into a technocratic term that few understand but most know they are tired of dealing with.

In the words of my friend, Cassandra, “Gender equality requires an understanding the politics of women and oppression and all that feminism stuff. So let’s get with it.”

* Goetz 2003, Prugl and Lustgarten 2006, Rao and Kelleher 2005, Klugman (2008), True (2003) and Charlesworth (2010).

The Sacred Sisterhood and My Elephant Family

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I am a feminist and I try to live my life by the principles of sisterhood, solidarity, peace, and non violence. My work focuses on gender-based violence and the vast majority of my colleagues consider themselves to be feminists as well. To my great surprise and dismay, I was recently a target of trashing by colleagues. And to my even greater dismay, it turns out that this is a common problem in our community. That is absolutely unacceptable.

What is trashing, you ask? Feminist scholar and author Jo Freeman identified it in her 1976 essay:

What is “trashing,” this colloquial term that expresses so much, yet explains so little? It is not disagreement; it is not conflict; it is not opposition. These are perfectly ordinary phenomena which, when engaged in mutually, honestly, and not excessively, are necessary to keep an organism or organization healthy and active. Trashing is a particularly vicious form of character assassination which amounts to psychological rape. It is manipulative, dishonest, and excessive. It is occasionally disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict, or covered up by denying that any disapproval exists at all. But it is not done to expose disagreements or resolve differences. It is done to disparage and destroy….

Whatever methods are used, trashing involves a violation of one’s integrity, a declaration of one’s worthlessness, and an impugning of one’s motives. In effect, what is attacked is not one’s actions, or one’s ideas, but one’s self…. [emphasis added]

My recent experiences involved two different kinds of trashing behavior: the quiet behind the back bad-mouthing and the in-your-face verbal abuse.

In the first incident, a colleague used quiet undermining and back-biting to cast aspersions on my professional knowledge and abilities while acting supportive, collegial, and even friendly to me directly. This put my reputation at risk in some circles, and was particularly hurtful as people I felt that I knew and trusted stood by silently without defending me. I understand that trashing says more about the trasher’s insecurities than anything about the trashee. Nevertheless, it’s harmful.

The other experience involved several incidents of verbal abuse, yelling, and bullying in work meetings in front of other colleagues. I was frequently the target of this abusive behavior, but I was not the only target. It’s horrifying to experience it or watch it happening regardless of who is the target. It was frightening and appalling, even more so because this individual is in a position of power and is known to be abusive in professional spheres.

To my great joy, both incidents resulted in many of my close colleagues gathering around me and declaring their trust in both me and my capabilities. They reminded me of an elephant family – mature females who surround their vulnerable herd-mate to comfort and defend against the enemy – be it human poacher or hungry lions. My elephant family of sisters surround me, care for me, protect me, and are brave for me in those moments when I can’t find words to defend myself and when I feel afraid that I can’t be brave enough. My elephant family neutralizes any harm that may befall me or my reputation. For that I will be forever grateful.

At the time all this was occurring, I posted a vague declaration of experiencing workplace abuse on my personal Facebook. It was, with my fear of social media’s long and unceasing reach, uncharacteristically personal and vulnerable. I was delighted and overwhelmed with the positive response from my friends and acquaintances. So many messages of support, many messages disclosing similar experiences, and a universal message that trashing happens far too much in the gender and gender-based violence fields of work and we have to stand up against it.

I know that my experiences are far too common in our community. And that’s why I decided to write this. I think that the problem is big enough that rather than just circling the vulnerable to protect them, we need to address this problem out loud and discuss solutions.

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So, what do we do when this trashing happens? Stand helplessly in uncomfortable and powerless silence? How can we stand up against trashing? The elephant family is filled with strong females who bond together to defend against the enemy but they are still vulnerable to the threat from within. As Jo Freeman pointed out, trashing occurs in a variety of ways and can be direct, indirect, and just plain smarmy and insidious. What should one do to counteract it? Do you call out that sneaky undermining gossipy stuff when you hear it – refuse to participate in it even though it may leave you outside of a group in control? Do you speak up in opposition to trashing when it occurs, wherever it occurs, damn the consequences? Do you rush in to surround your vulnerable elephant sister and protect her (literally or figuratively)?

It seems to me that there is room in this work for everyone. We have so much to do if we want real gender equality, and we need all hands and hearts and minds. So what’s the point in trying to push some of our sisters away when we need them so badly?

Just a couple of years ago, Jill Filipovic posed the question, “Is sisterhood sacred or soul-crushing?” Her answer, in part:

Within the feminist movement, the answer is less clear than one might hope. Trashing each other and exclusion have been hallmarks since the movement began, and each generation of feminist activists seems to suffer the same in-fighting. But contrary to simplistic ideas about catty, back-stabbing women, feminists don’t fight each other because women are uniquely competitive or cruel. Though we care about the movement, it happens because we’ve internalized a narrative of scarcity: we act as though we’re fighting for crumbs. [emphasis added]

Is that what this is all about? That we’re fighting each other for crumbs of credibility and respect? That we put others down so that we can feel better in a collectively internalized narrative of scarcity? A race to the bottom where we fight like starving rats over crumbs? If that is the case, then let’s change that narrative right here and right now.

How can we keep our sisterhood sacred? How can we stand shoulder to shoulder against those who wish us harm, especially if they are inside our elephant family?

What can we do as a community to restore sacred sisterhood and stand up to trashing?

Please leave us your thoughts and ideas in the comments sections below or on our FB page, Twitter page or by email at CassandraComplexityBlog@gmail.com.

Desperate Sex and other Exploitative Measures part 1

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Recently the Guardian decided to publish an article about the sex lives of Humanitarian Aid workers written by Pauline Oosterhoff and Elise Wach of International Development Studies department at the University of Sussex in the UK.

The authors start with a sexy scenario, which in this instance actually means sexy. They wanted to explore the complexities of having a sex life when working as a humanitarian aid worker. At first, they complained about coworkers in the field watching porn on the shared TV and the logistical and security problems of getting your boss to sign off on a sexual relationship with a staff member of another agency. The authors stated “paid sex with local sex workers avoids some of these issues, but clearly poses others.” They then go on to ‘helpfully’ tell the readers

“in many countries, bars and discos have rooms available to rent for a short stay and are usually considered brothels by the local population. Making decisions on the best way for staff to visit brothels is a familiar dilemma for some humanitarian logistics managers. While providing the organisation’s car ensures the driver is likely to get humanitarians home safely, having its logo on a jeep outside a brothel is hardly ideal for the organisation’s reputation.”    

Upon reading this, many of us at Cassandra and in the GBV community were saddened and shocked. The comments section on the Guardian website and chatter on Facebook showed us that we were not alone. The authors are blithely promoting something that has been a real problem in the humanitarian world – sexual exploitation and abuse by  humanitarian aid workers and by UN peacekeepers.

The authors seem to have completely ignored the work that has been going on since 2002 to address the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse (a form of gender-based violence) BY humanitarian aid workers and missed an opportunity to raise awareness and promote this work and have possibly undermined it. It was disturbing for us to see an institution such as IDS not even mention the power dynamics involved while suggesting that the completely unethical behavior of having sex with locals is a legitimate “option”.  Several of us responded with the following piece which can be found on the Guardian website.  The Guardian’s editors took out some of our points so here’s the full response as submitted.    

“We, the authors, all work on preventing and responding to sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies and have for decades. Your recent article caught our attention because it raised a very dangerous ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of humanitarian workers having a sex life while in the field. We are extremely disturbed by the author’s suggestion that humanitarian workers and peacekeepers pay for sex and, more so, that the authors believe that this is an issue that is open for discussion. It is simply not true. Their article is not well informed and ignores a key principle within the humanitarian system that prohibits sexual exploitation and abuse of our beneficiaries.

The 2003 United Nations Secretary General’s bulletin on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse explicitly prohibits humanitarians from exchanging money, goods or services for sex. Every international organization that receives funding from the UN, United States or European donors must abide by these requirements, including mandatory reporting against any suspected violation. While there may be logistics officers and drivers who take coworkers to brothels, they should be reported for doing so and they and their brothel-visiting coworkers should be investigated and fired.

Humanitarians are human beings who have sexual relations while deployed – this is true. We all know couples that have developed relationships with other humanitarians but this is not a given. Many also understand that a lack of appropriate partners means that one must postpone this aspect of their life until R&R or return home. Sexual relationships with local staff and people affected by the crisis involve significant power dynamics and call into question the idea of “consent”.

Aside from being prohibited by our codes of conduct, for the authors to suggest that visiting local sex workers is an acceptable solution to sexual frustration while deployed is unethical. The Guardian article’s comments section recounts some horrifying stories of what happens when these power dynamics are ignored and abused. The heart of these policies is to ensure protection of vulnerable populations (not merely to protect our own organizational reputations). Organizations still struggle to implement these policies. Articles like this piece may strive to start a conversation about sex but have missed an opportunity to inform about why we need to protect affected populations from those who can’t control their sex drives. Ms. Oosterhoff and Wach‘s lack of understanding about the harm of sexual abuse and exploitation—and failure to reference the code of conduct—is simply dangerous – especially for the vulnerable men, women, boys, and girls that we seek to assist.”

Chen, Micah, Beth, and I have all been working on preventing and responding to sexual violence in humanitarian and development settings for nearly a combined 65 years (!!). We know that it is rare to see our issues in the mainstream press so we relish these kinds of opportunities to educate people about these very complex issues. It was also good to see others working on the same issues as us take the time (that we often are unable to find) to raise these issues in a widely read and respected newspaper and website. It was therefore particularly shocking to see that the IDS authors completely missed the point.

Not mentioning the codes of conduct from the piece immediately leads knowledgeable readers to call into question the author’s understanding of the topic of sexual activity by aid workers. It undermined any point that the author might be trying to make, for example that codes of conduct are failing, irrelevant, or a band aid solution (all of which would be an interesting addition to the subject).

Regarding the authors’ point about the “awkwardness” of reporting a sexual relationship with colleagues, this raises a valuable point about how difficult it is to get people to report sexual harassment or concern that others are breaking the code of Conduct due to fear of no organizational follow-up or negative repercussions (see the movie the Whistleblower which highlights the work of a great gender activist, Madeleine Rees.) Policies are in place but implementing them is harder. While larger agencies such as UNHCR can hire people to travel to the field to engage in discussions about codes of conduct (which reach beyond just the sex lives of their staff) and building capacity to address the issues, it appears to be the smaller agencies that struggle with reporting and screening staffChild protection agencies in particular are aware of the problem – how to protect vulnerable children from pedophiles.   

I don’t think people are pretending its not happening…. there have been activists working on this issue for years. Nor is it a case of agencies “preferring a policy to make it a fireable offense” – it’s about implementing codes of conduct that are tied to their human resources policies and their funding. It’s also about making it unacceptable behavior and changing the attitudes that put an aid worker’s sexual fulfillment over the right of a person from a crisis affected setting to live a life of dignity. 

As humanitarian aid workers, we are supposed to be saving lives and alleviating suffering. We should not be contributing to the pain and suffering of the people that we have come there to support. 

For more discussion on the topic of paid sex work and humanitarians, stay tuned for Part 2: Desperate Sex and other Exploitative Measures.