When Oxfam staff in Haiti were caught paying earthquake survivors for sex, many aid organisations moved to overhaul their safeguarding policies and tried to clamp down on the practice of transactional sex, noting the power disparities between staff and the people they serve.
But five years after the 2018 Haiti scandal gave way to the supposed reforms of the #AidToo movement, little has changed on the ground – particularly in countries like Sierra Leone, where sex workers say aid workers are still part of their clientele.
To better understand the experiences of sex workers and what has changed in the sector and what hasn’t, The New Humanitarian spent six months with dozens of women in Sierra Leone and a few of their clients in 2019 before the pandemic struck. Earlier this year, reporters went back to some of the women who reported having aid workers as clients, asking how their lives and clientele had changed.
At a glance: Business as usual despite aid sector bans
- Sex workers say they still rely on aid worker clients
- A lack of well-paid jobs and government safety nets keeps many in the trade
- Some male aid workers say sex is often transactional and ignore bans
- Sex workers say clients have started hiding their badges or using WhatsApp to be more discreet
- Rights groups say better protections and opportunities are needed instead of bans
Most said the lack of job opportunities and government help – coupled with the lingering presence of well-paid aid workers and rising costs – have kept them in the trade. Sex workers in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also told The New Humanitarian that aid workers still represented a large part of their clientele.
“Foreign men think that we like the life, but I hate it,” said *Isata, a 17-year-old sex worker in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, who said aid workers were among her clients. “The men don’t realise many of us are homeless.”
Isata turned to sex work to support her younger brother after they lost their mother to Ebola during the 2013-2016 outbreak that killed nearly 4,000 Sierra Leoneans and orphaned more than 12,000 children here. It claimed more than 11,300 lives across West Africa.
Nearly all international aid organisations ban staff from paying for sex while on assignment, and many have so-called zero-tolerance policies for engaging in transactional sex or the broader category of fraternisation.
More often than not, cases of aid workers visiting sex workers are lumped under the category of transactional sex, which can encompass everything from survival sex, where aid beneficiaries trade sex in exchange for food or money, to relationships that may or may not be consensual.
Several male aid workers told The New Humanitarian that sex – in Sierra Leone and elsewhere – is often transactional, and prohibiting aid workers from such arrangements is both naive and unrealistic.
“The whole thing is kind of a grey area,” said *Tom, an expatriate aid consultant in Sierra Leone who also asked not to be identified. “Right after sex, women I sleep with say 'I need some help' or 'I can't pay my rent this month'. It's perfectly reasonable for them to expect you to give them something.”
For some 26,000 women, sex work has been one way to earn cash in uncertain times in Sierra Leone, which still has a large humanitarian presence since the Ebola outbreak, which brought in a surge of some $900 million in aid. Before that, an 11-year civil war ensnared some 10,000 child soldiers and killed 50,000 people between 1991 and 2002.
The economic fallout from the pandemic has been the country’s latest setback, which like many crises, has disproportionately impacted women – often tasked with caring for family members and working as street vendors, cleaners, or other jobs in the informal sector, which is largely unprotected by any government safety net.
Inflation has also surged compared to last year, a jump attributed to rising food and energy costs, supply chain interruptions, and the war in Ukraine.
Hassan Fuad, director of the Youth and Child Advocacy Network (YACAN) in Sierra Leone, said the recent rising costs of essential items and transport have pushed girls as young as 12 into sex work, adding that little has changed with the aid worker clientele – aside from men turning to WhatsApp groups to buy sex more discreetly, or becoming better at hiding their name badges.
“The clientele are still present at the locations they use to pick up sex workers,” Fuad told The New Humanitarian. “It’s just harder to know who they work for now.”
The ban has been difficult to police, however. Sex workers don’t report cases, because they rely on aid workers as clients, and some aid workers ignore the ban entirely.
“Foreign men think that we like the life, but I hate it.”
“Yes, we’ve been given the lectures about power imbalances and everything – and I understand that – but if we don’t pay women for this type of thing, then realistically that means they or their children may not eat for the day. It’s as simple as that,” said *Leonard, who visits sex workers and works for a UN agency in Sierra Leone, asking that neither his name nor that of his organisation be used because of the restrictions.
Those in favour of the ban say transactional sex harks back to colonial-era fetishisation of women from the Global South and blurs the line of consent when the economic disparities between aid workers and local populations are extreme.
One sex worker told The New Humanitarian that a British charity worker reported her to the police and accused her of being a thief after she refused anal sex. Other sex workers say it is not uncommon for foreign men to ask for anal sex or other acts traditionally viewed as taboo in Sierra Leone.
“Rich foreigners working for various organisations come here on the pretence of helping us,” said *Amie, 29. “But then they want to dominate us in our own country.”
But others say the aid sector ban is equally colonial and paternalistic, robbing sex workers of their agency and opportunities to make a living when jobs are scarce and sex work is legal.
“We believe sex work is work,” Charles Mukoma, a representative of the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA), an alliance of sex workers and partner organisations working to empower and protect people in the sex work industry.
“You're telling me to stop sex work, and you're not telling me how to pay my rent,” said Mukoma, who is not a sex worker but speaks on behalf of many in the sector who want stronger social protections and more work opportunities.
Lumley Beach, a long stretch of sand near Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, comes alive on weekends with aid vehicles parked outside flashy restaurants and clubs.
Sex workers say the area is a magnet for clients from aid organisations, consultancy firms, and the mining sector.
“I was in this very location with my school bags when a white guy offered me $100 for sex,” said *Mabinty, a 26-year-old law and music student who turned to sex work after her father demanded sex from her and threw her out of the house.
She said the man who paid her $100 for sex said he worked for the World Bank.
“If we don’t pay women for this type of thing, then realistically that means they or their children may not eat for the day. It’s as simple as that.”
“I stayed in the hotel with him for about two weeks,” Mabinty said. “I don’t know why he wanted to give me so much money because we weren’t having sex that much. He just wanted someone to pleasure him while he went on the computer.”
In total, Mabinty said the man paid her nearly £3,000, which she used to buy land. The World Bank offered no comment by the time of publication.
“Most of the women here engage in sex work not because they like it, but because they do not have another option,” Julie Sesay, programme manager for a female-led local legal aid charity, AdvocAid, told The New Humanitarian. The charity helps women in need, including sex workers who have been abused by clients or allegedly harassed by police.
“They tend to be from very poor backgrounds. [Sometimes], the parents died during the war, Ebola, or [in] the mudslide,” she said, referring to a 2018 disaster that left more than 1,100 people dead or missing. “Often, even the families send them to the streets.”
*Khadija, for example, was forced into sex work at 17 by her aunt after she lost both of her parents in the civil war.
“When I started doing prostitution as a teenager, it was so, so bad for me,” she said, noting that her clients have come from the UN and other aid groups. “Many times when I was with men, I would say stop and they would not stop even though I was crying.”
Others say foreign clients treat them better than local clients – and pay more.
“Some of the foreign men treat me very nicely,” said *Mariama, 19, who lives with other sex workers and their dependents in an abandoned nightclub on Lumley Beach. “I always look for white men when I go out. My friend married a man from Germany because he got her pregnant and now she lives there. I want that to happen to me.”
Sex abuse scandals
Over the years, the aid sector has been plagued by numerous headline-grabbing scandals involving UN peacekeepers, UN personnel, and other aid workers from NGOs like Oxfam.
The Oxfam scandal, first reported by The Times of London in 2018, involved former country director Roland van Hauwermeiren and other staff of using young sex workers while based in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which killed between 100,000 and 300,000 people, and left some 1.6 million people displaced.
In the same year, The New Humanitarian revealed that van Hauwermeiren had been dismissed for similar misconduct several years earlier in Liberia, highlighting shortcomings in tracking and vetting personnel.
An internal Oxfam investigation in 2011 led to four people being sacked and three others resigning, including van Hauwermeiren. But a report published by Oxfam after the investigation failed to mention sexual exploitation – a revelation that prompted an inquiry from an independent commission and triggered a loss of funding for Oxfam.
The scandal, coming alongside the #MeToo movement, also triggered wider discussions about the persistence of sexual harassment as well as exploitation and abuse in the aid sector as a whole. Oxfam bore the brunt of the negative publicity, but misconduct, bullying, sexual harassment, and toxic workplace culture were reported in many non-profits, from Save the Children to UNICEF.
Oxfam declined to comment for The New Humanitarian’s piece, saying questions would be better placed with Bond, a UK network of more than 400 organisations working in international development, which has worked closely with Oxfam.
“Obviously, the 2018 scandal was a real wake-up call, and our members have fundamentally changed their approach to safeguarding policies and practice,” Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, told The New Humanitarian.
“Since then, we've seen changes across codes of conduct, mandatory training, bringing in professional staff, taking action on reporting, the whole recruitment practices – all of these have been overhauled in order to reduce sexual exploitation and harassment.”
But while the scandal focused global attention on how people affected by crises – especially women and girls – are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation, the sector has yet to fully address the roots of the problem, according to Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, author of 'Violating Peace: Sex, Aid and Peacekeeping' and associate professor in international relations at La Trobe University, Australia.
“There's a complex mix around exploitation, but also consent, and the agency of women making shrewd choices in less than ideal material conditions,” Westendorf told The New Humanitarian in February. “I think there's a lot more to be done in the sector to address the material conditions and to address the inequality that's created."
Westendorf said confusion over what constitutes acceptable behaviour is rife, particularly in countries like Sierra Leone where sex workers often frequent night clubs, hotels, and restaurants seeking to create a connection in order to generate clients.
“Clients may choose to interpret those relationships as being driven by the women,” she said. “There's quite a lot of evidence around peacekeepers and aid workers who say things like, ‘she was enthusiastically competing for my attention… I was sitting at a bar… I didn’t do anything… I was the victim.’”
Like other Ebola-hit countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the sudden influx of aid dollars left a mark on the local economy in Sierra Leone, pushing many women and girls into sex work and keeping them there.
Just as a national safety net programme was being rolled out in 2015, the country was hit by the Ebola outbreak and falling prices of iron ore, its key export.
“There is little safety net for women and girls in Sierra Leone,” Hannah Fatmata Yambasu, head of Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES), a Sierra Leonean rights group, told The New Humanitarian in March.
Mineral and resource-rich, Sierra Leone is a top producer of iron ore, but little of this wealth – or international aid money – has trickled down to the country’s most marginalised, according to Marie Benjamin, director of the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa (SWAA), a federation of several groups.
“It has to pay for the girls to leave sex work,” said Benjamin. “If they cannot earn as much, then they will always go back.”
“We need a comprehensive social protection programme for sex workers.”
Her group works with the National HIV Response Program, which also assists sex workers in Sierra Leone by creating support groups and getting them into technical and vocational programmes.
Benjamin, however, said even when women have been given funds to start a small business, some have been arrested for defaulting on microcredit loans.
Mukoma, from the African Sex Workers Alliance, said better protections and opportunities are needed more than bans.
“We need a comprehensive social protection programme for sex workers,” he said. “It needs to include food relief for those sex workers in places who can’t eat; healthcare measures for those who are HIV positive; and economic empowerment programmes that sex workers can train in to supplement their income and give them more choice about how they earn their money.”
Mabinty, who hopes her law studies may be able to help a next generation of women and girls by offering better protections, said many sex workers have been driven into the trade because there’s a lack of investment in education and infrastructure: “You have engineers among these women, you have doctors, you have people who have been a professional in their own field.”
Since the pandemic, Mabinty has focused on her studies and said she “wasn’t officially” continuing her sex work.
She said her human rights law course was paid for by an Australian man she befriended in Freetown.
“He didn't ask me for sex,” she explained. “He only wanted to help me and my country. If foreign NGO staff can afford to pay us to use our bodies for their own pleasure, they can afford to pay us for nothing.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of sex workers and their clients who requested anonymity.
With reporting and video support from Susan Koroma and Michael Duff.
Edited by – and with additional reporting from – Paisley Dodds in London.