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.