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Time to confront sexual abuse and harassment in the aid sector

Jefri Aries/IRIN
An aid worker helps a child traumatised by a 2009 earthquake in West Sumatra, Indonesia
It all started innocently enough: just a home cooked meal with some female friends, in the midst of the Ebola epidemic in Guinea. As is common amongst aid workers, we were swapping war stories. But ours were of a different kind: the kind where the battleground was the office, and the perpetrators many of our male colleagues. 
“I was hit in the face in my office by a male colleague. At least five of my colleagues – all women – saw the whole thing happen. I didn’t. All I remember is falling to the floor and then scrambling on the ground to find a desk beneath which I could hide.” – Anna* 
“During a party at my compound a senior manager grabbed me by the arms and stuck his tongue down my throat. Shocked and confused, I didn’t resist. A few years later, a friend heard one of her male colleagues wistfully describe my previous compound as 'the Playboy Mansion', because all of the senior managers were male and all of the expats in non-management positions were young women who couldn’t easily say 'no' without endangering their careers.” – Kara* 
“At a weekend outing, a male colleague made a comment about my chest size in front of a number of my other work colleagues. His comment shook me in a way that even surprised me. It made me feel small and powerless.” – Marie* 
The humanitarian sector has been remiss to take notice of sexual abuse and harassment of its female workers. But the issue will be discussed tomorrow at a high-level meeting of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which includes representation from the world’s major humanitarian agencies. We hope the meeting will lead to action.

Survey results 

In particular, the committee will discuss findings of our recent survey, and our recommendations. The survey came out of many similar discussions like the one described above. After that particular dinner, we decided to do something. 
A few of us formed the Humanitarian Women’s Network and, earlier this year, we sent a questionnaire to all the female aid workers we knew and asked them to forward it to others. Within 50 days, more than 1,000 responded. 
After we crunched the data, we found that their experiences – sadly – matched our personal experiences: women in the humanitarian sector said they were subjected to discrimination, harassment and abuse; and they had no recourse without suffering professional reprisals. 
Almost half the respondents reported being touched in an unwanted way by a male colleague in the workplace. Even more were subjected to persistent sexual advances from their colleagues. Forty of the respondents were sexually assaulted by a colleague. More than half of all physical aggressions were committed by a supervisor. 
Half of the women who responded said they were subjected to talk at the office about sex, how they look, their intelligence, and their role in the workplace. More than half the respondents said they did not feel their organisation was doing what it could to make them feel safe. 

Little protection 

Further probing of the data revealed that reporting systems are lacklustre and do not sufficiently protect women aid workers. 
The majority (69 percent) of respondents who said they experienced discrimination, harassment or abuse did not report it, because of a fear of professional consequences, lack of trust in the system, or an absence of a mechanism to report. Of the few who did report (only 31 percent), almost half were met with total inaction by their employers. 
Furthermore, there were more women who had to endure negative professional consequences for reporting (22 percent) than perpetrators of these acts who were punished (19 percent), according to the survey results.
More than a quarter of the respondents reported that their experiences of discrimination, harassment, or sexual assault in the workplace changed the course of their career, leading them to move mission or exit the industry altogether.

Time for action 

This situation is unacceptable – and we hope that participants at tomorrow’s meeting will agree. 
We have some recommendations for them: to acknowledge, monitor and probe the problem; to set up a reliable and robust inter-agency reporting system; to hold perpetrators accountable across the system and provide better support to victims; to take steps to change the culture of the aid sector to one more accommodating to women in the workplace. 
We, as women, must also take action. We must end the silence and report our experiences to organisations like Report the Abuse. And we must support each other.
That’s why we launched the Humanitarian Women’s Network: to create a vast network of female aid workers committed to professional support, mentorship and achieving a work environment in our sector where women are free from discrimination, harassment and abuse. 
We are ready to take action. Tomorrow’s meeting will indicate whether leaders of the humanitarian sector are with us. 
*(Not their real names. The quotes were roughly what was said at the dinner, but were recorded again later for accuracy.)
(TOP PHOTO: An aid worker helps a child traumatised by a 2009 earthquake in West Sumatra, Indonesia. CREDIT: Jefri Aries/IRIN)
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