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Aid sector sex abuse: A common occurrence with reoccurring themes

‘Sometimes, the mechanisms set up to control sexual exploitation are seen like attacks against local cultures.’

A man walks in the POC (Protection of Civilians) Camp, run by the UN Mission in South Sudan near the town of Malakal, in the Upper Nile state of South Sudan, September 9, 2018.
Some 37,000 displaced South Sudanese reside in the Protection of Civilians (PoC) camp run by the UN near the town of Malakal, but many women and girls have found abuse at the hands of the very people supposed to protect them. (Baz Ratner/REUTERS)

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Sex abuse and exploitation has long dogged the UN and the aid sector, most recently with persistence and scale of allegations emerging at the Protection of Civilians camp in Malakal, South Sudan.

Before that, it was a scandal involving the UN’s World Health Organization and other international aid groups whose workers were caught luring women and girls into sex-for-work schemes during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Among these scandals, a number of common themes emerge. 

Male-dominated sector

The first is that most of the aid workers are men. In a 2019 report, the WHO said that some 81 percent of its Ebola responders were male. After the Congo scandal was exposed, it said it would take steps to increase the number of female aid workers

Many humanitarian operations already take place in patriarchal societies where men wield undue influence over women’s lives. In many of those countries, women already have less agency, fewer economic opportunities, and greater care-giving expectations for their families. 

“The social and economic power that humanitarians have in comparison to the communities they serve creates circumstances in which transactional sex can become embedded in local economies.”

Relying on aid workers who are predominantly male – often from those same communities – deepens the existing power imbalances and gender dynamics, especially when men often fill the majority of decision-making roles in aid work. 

“The social and economic power that humanitarians have in comparison to the communities they serve creates circumstances in which transactional sex can become embedded in local economies, driven by the reality that locals may have few other ways to meet essential needs,” wrote Jasmine-Kim Westendorf in a recent op-ed for The New Humanitarian. 

Cultural differences

A second theme has long been an elephant in the room for the aid sector – how to bridge the gap between supposed zero tolerance policies on sexual exploitation and the practices of a local work force who see those policies as affecting their right to have relationships within their own communities. 

In Malakal, local aid workers spoke to those frustrations, especially when both parties were residents in the camp and often came from the same communities. In eastern Congo, where there have been several recent demonstrations against the UN presence, aid workers mentioned similar opinions during the Ebola response. 

“The mechanisms set up to control sexual exploitation are seen like attacks against local cultures. The challenge is bigger when exploitation victims consider their situation as normal.”

“International NGOs recruit local people, set up behavioural codes and policies against exploitation,” said Fidèle Andera Balyamu, a lawyer and expert in sexual and gender-based violence based in Congo, where he previously worked with a local NGO. “[But] sometimes, the mechanisms set up to control sexual exploitation are seen like attacks against local cultures. The challenge is bigger when exploitation victims consider their situation as normal. They don't understand how people can be punished for something normal. 

“In other situations, the respect of the behavioural code and humanitarian policies against sexual exploitation is considered as limiting opportunities for some families,” he added, noting that the longer people are displaced, the harder it can become to find marriage partners. 

So, although most international aid organisations prohibit sexual relations between their workers and aid beneficiaries, enforcing this is difficult, especially when both come from the same communities. It is also a challenge in places like South Sudan and Congo where unemployment is high and sex-for-jobs or sex-for-money can be comparatively lucrative. 

Reporting mechanisms

A third theme has been that the abuse is often widely known, yet women – and the organisations whose workers are involved – are sometimes reluctant to report the cases publicly.

Aid organisations often refuse to release location-specific numbers, citing privacy reasons – the majority of aid groups that have worked in Malakal, for example, refused to give reporters the total number of allegations since 2013, and the UN’s own public database only lists allegations according to countries, not specific locations. 

Several international aid workers told reporters that UN agencies and NGOs in Malakal lacked a common approach when investigating allegations and determining if such cases should be logged. 

The aid workers, all of whom asked not to be named for fear of repercussions with their employers, said many organisations were also reluctant to share information or report cases due to reputational risk or a loss of funding – fears deepened by the Oxfam sex scandal.

Oxfam, which had been seen in the sector as one of the better organisations in terms of transparency and reporting, quickly became the poster child for what not to do when it comes to sexual abuse and exploitation, despite trying to come clean about allegations. 

“Organisations are more concerned with protecting their reputations and funding streams than they are with protecting vulnerable people.”

In that scandal, Oxfam staff were caught frequenting sex workers after the deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Because of the scale of the abuse, Oxfam’s failure to disclose evidence, and shortcomings in its own internal investigation, the charity lost millions in taxpayer donations and government funding. 

One humanitarian with knowledge of programmes designed to tackle sexual abuse and exploitation in South Sudan, who requested anonymity because they feared reprisals, told The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera that Oxfam’s sex abuse scandal had a chilling effect on organisations coming forward to report abuse – a possible reason that the official numbers of abuse are relatively low compared to what reporters found in just one week. 

“Organisations are more concerned with protecting their reputations and funding streams than they are with protecting vulnerable people,” the aid worker told reporters on condition of anonymity. “What is the benefit of owning up to SEA occurring within an organisation? There is no benefit. It is all downside. That is why all the formal mechanisms set up to address this problem are going to be toothless.”

Globally, fear of reporting sexual abuse continues to hamper efforts to tackle the problem.

Many women are often reluctant to report such abuse, or unaware of how to do so. Others fear that if they do so they will be stigmatised by their families or communities. 

Edited by Paisley Dodds. 

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