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How aid agencies should protect their staff from sexual abuse

Beneficiaries waiting in line to collect their ration at a food-distribution taking place at the UNMISS-compound in Malakal, Upper Nile State, South Sudan (May 2014)
Beneficiaries waiting in line to collect their ration at a food-distribution taking place at the UNMISS-compound in Malakal, Upper Nile State, South Sudan (May 2014) (Jacob Zocherman/IRIN)

Only 16 percent of aid agencies have proper policies dealing with sexual assaults on staff, and just one in 10 cases of sexual abuse are reported and then properly handled, according to a new report.

The campaign, Report the Abuse, surveyed 92 aid organisations, including UN agencies and NGOs, and collected accounts of 77 incidents of sexual abuse, most of which were perpetrated by fellow staff members on their colleagues.

Megan Nobert, the report’s author, told IRIN that sexual violence was “pervasive” in the humanitarian and development sector. Too often, she said, survivors “tend to face some sort of punishment or retaliation from the person they are accusing.” Accountability is “phenomenally difficult”, as local law enforcement will often not be a safe or realistic option in troubled countries, and senior staff have extensive leeway in the field.

The culture of international aid and peacekeeping work also contribute to the risk, according Nobert. As well as being “a work environment that is formulated by traditional masculinities”, Nobert argues that sexual violence against aid workers happens in “a culture that still encourages – implicitly and explicitly – a cowboy-esque approach to work, where danger-seeking behaviour is valued.”

The report finds that aid organisations do have a range of policies, guidelines and codes of conduct that go some way to dealing with the issue. Few, however, have a comprehensive approach that tackles prevention, dealing with incidents, caring for the survivor and taking measures against any perpetrators on the payroll.

A senior NGO official told IRIN he was “very surprised” at the figure of 16 percent. Jamie Munn, director at Norwegian Refugee Council’s Geneva office said “duty of care” issues are among the policies that have been strengthened as part of a general trend of “professionalisation” of aid agencies in recent years. Standard-setting initiatives such as the CHS Alliance already cover sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace, he pointed out.

The Report the Abuse survey, released to mark World Humanitarian Day, recommends a ”holistic” set of policies and procedures to tackle the issue. The authors argue that piecemeal measures are insufficient, for example: “running prevention trainings without having reporting procedures in place only partially addresses one problem superficially.”

Records of sexual assault among aid workers are limited and patchy. Respondents to the voluntary Report the Abuse survey were overwhelmingly international rather than local staff members. Nobert said her organisation would be holding focus groups in six countries to look more closely at the needs of national staff members.

Another initiative, the Aid Worker Security Database, records only 26 cases of rape or “serious sexual assault” since 2004. Of 77 self-reported incidents collated by Report the Abuse since 1995, some 14 were cases of rape or sexual assault.

The issue is in the spotlight since news emerged of rape and sexual assaults of foreign aid workers in Juba last month. In a blog post, sexual violence analyst Sarah Martin, wrote: “Female aid workers everywhere are particularly deeply shaken by this event. Some are privately expressing how afraid they feel, but that they feel worse for abandoning South Sudanese women who bear the brunt of the sexual violence. Will it be worse for them if we leave?”

Outrage about the attacks in Juba prompted a group of aid workers to launch a petition on Friday demanding better protection and monitoring. “We are professional aid workers, not martyrs, and we demand the protection and justice we deserve,” says the petition, which calls for the UN to set up a dedicated monitoring mechanism, legal status for aid workers in international law and an industry-wide code of conduct to ensure better standards of care and protection for survivors.

Nobert, herself a survivor of sexual violence, has become a one-person resource for survivors. She fields calls and emails from survivors in confidence as well as running her campaigning NGO. Despite support from family and friends, after her attack she said “I felt so incredibly alone… There wasn’t really anybody who got it.” She has helped individual survivors to cope with their experience, and some who pursued complaints against their employers. “As hard as it is, it’s 100 percent worth it”, she said.


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