Ending Gender-Based Violence in Humanitarian Settings: Let’s Make it Happen


This entry was originally posted by Julie Lafrenière, Women’s Rights Specialist at Oxfam Canada, on 25 November 2015 at Oxfam’s Gender Justice Blog

In South Sudan, domestic violence is widespread and largely tolerated. In the all-too-common words of two young women from Warrap State: “we are often beaten. When we make a mistake, we are beaten – and there are so many mistakes.” So when widespread conflict broke out across the country in December 2013, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, it was unfortunately not surprising that gender-based violence (GBV) was a major threat for women living in IDP and refugee camps. Yet some aid workers struggled to fully grasp the issue and take action in a timely way, and at times exacerbated the situation by failing to incorporate GBV considerations into the design and delivery of the very services that were meant to protect and save lives. They also missed opportunities to address some of the underlying women’s empowerment and gender equality issues that could have led to lasting change.

South Sudan is by no means an isolated example. When I traveled to Jordan in 2014, the international community was already struggling to deal with the massive influx of refugees, and humanitarians on the ground had real concerns about the rise in violence against women and girls. In the camps, colleagues from a number of organizations described challenges related to protecting women and girls – such as ensuring proper lighting, locks on latrines and safe fuel collection. Although many actors were aware of the risks to women, girls and marginalized groups, they did not systematically include them in the design and implementation of projects.  And although they were aware of their sector-specific guidance – such as theSphere Handbook – they faced huge challenges in incorporating GBV into their programming, both technically (in terms of what to do) and operationally (in terms of how to do it). There was a clear need for a practical tool that would help them prevent GBV in camps and in urban areas. Fortunately, practical and relevant assistance is now available, in the form of new guidelines.

Cover: 2015 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Gender-based Violence (GBV) GuidelinesI was in Jordan as one of the authors of the revised Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Guidelines for Integrating Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action (GBV Guidelines). Following a two-year consultative process led by UNICEF and UNFPA, the revised GBV Guidelines were officially launched in September in South Africa.

The first version of the Guidelines was published in September 2005. Nearly 10 years later, the humanitarian community has made significant progress come in moving GBV from the side-lines, where it was viewed as a “niche” area of work, to the forefront of humanitarian action. During those 10 years, the UN established a Special Representative focused explicitly on sexual violence in conflict; the Security Council passed critical resolutions promoting a more robust security response to sexual violence; many UN entities and NGOs scaled up their engagement in this area of work; and far more young professionals are choosing to focus their careers on the prevention of GBV and Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG).

These revised Guidelines are a practical, field-tested tool for humanitarian actors and crisis-affected communities. An important contribution of the Guidelines is that they show that all humanitarian actors have a role to play in preventing GBV, whether a water engineer or a food security specialist. Specifically, they target actors working in 13 sectors, including Education, the theme of this year’s 16 Days of Activism. In many humanitarian settings, attending school can be a risky endeavor. The erosion of standard protection mechanisms in humanitarian emergencies means that students and education personnel—particularly females—often face an increased risk of sexual harassment, sexual assault or abduction while travelling to and from school. There are also significant risks in schools: lack of supervisory staff increases the risk of bullying, sexual harassment and assault occurring on school grounds by peers as well as teachers and other adults. The Gender-based Violence Guidelines make a number of practical recommendations for designing and implementing education interventions that reduce or minimize risk to women and girls including, for example, considering alternative, informal, or non-traditional approaches and ensuring that locations and times of programmes meet the needs of women and adolescent girls who have domestic and family-related responsibilities.

As the 16 Days of Activism get underway in 2015, I am reflecting back on my time in Jordan and other humanitarian settings – and seeing the opportunity that the new Guidelines afford all of us to treat gender-based violence prevention and response as a life-saving priority right from the start of humanitarian crises – across all sectors. Let’s make it happen.

This entry posted by Julie Lafrenière, Women’s Rights Specialist at Oxfam Canada focussing on GBV in humanitarian settings. Oxfam was actively engaged in the drafting of the Guidelines and is supporting their roll-out and implementation. Ending GBV and VAWG is critical to Oxfam’s mission of addressing the root causes of poverty and suffering.

Photo: Gathering wood – the missing link between eating or going hungry in South Sudan’s Bor refugee camp. Credit: Kieran Doherty/ Oxfam, May 2014


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


  • 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


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.


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.

16 Days: Women risking their lives to defend the rights of women



November 29th was dedicated to the Feminist and Women Human Rights Defenders in recognition of the brave women from all walks of life who risk their lives to exercise and defend their human rights and the rights of others.

They are feminists, activists, lawyers, judges, teachers, social workers, community leaders, mothers, sisters – who have taken a stand against violence and discrimination against women, and the broader community.

They are the women who scream for justice, shout at injustice, ask hard questions, demand answers, and stand up against governments, institutions, and powerful individuals and groups.

The tribute was first launched at Association of Women In Development’s 12th International Forum on Women’s Rights in Development, held in April 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. The new version of the tribute takes the form of an online photo exhibition launched on November 25th, Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and ends on December 10, International Human Rights Day with a special slide show featuring 16 WHRDs from around the world. The tribute features photographs and biographies of women’s rights leaders from around the world.

This online exhibition, courtesy of  is a tribute to these human rights defenders that have passed away – a third of these women were assassinated or disappeared, proving the extreme risks for those working in promoting human rights and challenging the status quo.

On this day, we also give thanks and admiration to the amazing women human rights defenders we know, including amazing humanitarian colleagues who often work in very difficult environments – disasters, war and conflict, displacement, and at times in countries and organisations that don’t understand the need for women’s rights, or with systems and colleagues who question why we need to care about the women and girls.

Our work is fraught with resistance.

Making the International Day to End Violence against Women… all about men?

Stop Violence Today, the 25th of November, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Activists have commemorated the day since 1981 and have used it to raise awareness of the extent and nature of violence against women around the world. The day was officially recognized by the UN in 1999 and it also marks the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign which ends on Dec 10th (International Human Rights Day). The theme this year is “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Let’s Challenge Militarism and End Violence Against Women!” The 25th of November was chosen because it was on this day in 1960 that three of the four Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic, were assassinated on orders of Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo. This day is specifically focused on highlighting the reality of violence against women and advocating to eliminate this violence rather than focusing on gender-based violence. Its clear from recent news stories that violence against women remains a common phenomenon in schools, workplaces, and homes. Violence against women and girls happens in relatively peaceful settings, as well as during natural disasters and in conflict. According to World Health Organization “35% of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.” The problem is often hidden and unaddressed. Responses to support survivors of violence are insufficient but must be implemented along with prevention as the key to ending violence against women. In this fight to eliminate violence against women, both women and men must be involved. The importance of men and boys as allies in the fight against violence against women is noted in the recently published  Lancet Series on Violence against Women and Girls and at the recent Men Engage Global Symposium. There are both national and international efforts to increase the positive engagement of men and boys in the efforts to end violence against women and girls. HOWEVER, being an ally doesn’t mean shifting the focus away from the problem and instead focusing on men’s role in working to end it.

white ribbon 4
White Ribbon walk in Sydney, Australia 2014

In Australia, the 25th of November is now known as “White Ribbon Day” after a male-led campaign focused on men ending violence against women. By changing the name of the day, the campaign has made the day about men and not about women. In particular it has effectively shifted the focus away from women who experience violence and from violence that is often hidden and unacknowledged. By doing so the campaign renders violence and the women it is perpetuated against invisible. On the one day of the year which is set aside to commemorate and honor women and girls who experience violence – those who survive and those who have not, we must keep the focus on women and girls as a reminder of what we are working towards. We can not end violence against women otherwise.

New Report: The Continuity of Risk: A three-city study of Congolese women-at-risk resettled in the U.S

The summary below was contributed by Karin Wachter, one of the report’s co-authors

In October 2014, the University of Texas at Austin and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University issued their report: The Continuity of Risk: A three-city study of Congolese women-at-risk resettled in the U.S. The study was conducted to prepare for the 50,000 Congolese refugees planned to be resettled in the United States over the next several years through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

The Continuity of Risk concludes that Congolese refugee women have a sense of safety and food security in the U.S., and struggle with integration. The primary concerns expressed by the research participants include the impacts of trauma, social isolation, loss of power as mothers and precarious financial survival. The UNHCR “woman-at-risk” resettlement category is also discussed from both practice and policy perspectives.

The findings highlight women’s intersecting experiences with violence and forced migration.  The recommendations section of the report, in particular, emphasizes the potential for collaboration between resettlement and domestic violence and sexual assault agencies to help meet those expressed needs.  This study can help to inform those collaborative efforts already underway and spark ideas for new initiatives and partnerships.

The report can be downloaded from the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) website at:  http://www.utexas.edu/ssw/cswr/institutes/idvsa/congolese-refugee-women-at-risk/

Desperate Sex and other Exploitative Measures part 1


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.