Our friends and family sometimes think the humanitarian world is populated by saints. The general public might also think that (our fundraising campaigns certainly play on this). However, those of us who live in it know our sector is not so different from others. We walk amongst mortals – flawed human beings.
We* are two of those millions who tweeted #MeToo – recalling our own many experiences of harassment, from when we were schoolgirls, to this day – make no mistake, it is a pervasive factor in every woman's life. But even though we are aid workers, we too experience sexual harassment and assault in the humanitarian world.
Since the 1990s, reports have documented UN peacekeepers engaging in sexual exploitation and abuse. The humanitarian aid world had their own scandal in 2001 in Guinea-Conakry, Liberia, and Sierra Leone when female refugees complained about being forced to trade sex for food. These led to a better understanding of the vulnerability of aid recipients to abuse and exploitation and led to high-level initiatives to root out sexual abuse by UN staff (to varying degrees of success).
The sexist culture in our sector needs to be called out and things need to change: It’s time to end all those times women have to smile wanly at sexist jokes; evade the clutches of some grabbing, entitled man; or trade warnings with each other about this or that male colleague (oh, there are Harvey Weinsteins in our midst).
The sexist culture in our sector needs to be called out and things need to change
Recently, female aid workers have spoken out about the sexual assault and harassment they face in the course of their work, including the brave women who spoke publicly about being assaulted in the Terrain Hotel in South Sudan in August 2016, a horrifying event.
In 2016, an organisation called ‘Report the Abuse’ was created to highlight the sexual abuse of aid workers. It folded in 2017 – not due to lack of interest, but due to a lack of resources. Sexual violence is a problem in our sector. We don’t have all the numbers, but the ones we do know already show us that it’s a problem.
Let's have a few examples: In one of our organisations, rating the sexual desirability of co-workers is a common pastime. It sounds kind of fun as a field drinking game. Until it's your boss talking about the length of the skirts the receptionist wears. She's 20 years his junior.
In a prestigious humanitarian organisation one of us used to work for, women would do their best to avoid being posted to missions in Africa, not due to hardships in the field but in order not to have to deal with the constant use of sex workers by their male colleagues.
Just fun between consenting adults! All forgotten in the morning back at the office!
But the winks and knowing smiles amongst men permeate and corrode the atmosphere, bringing with it a culture of objectifying and degrading women. Not to mention the damage it does to the reputation of aid organisations that locals view as exercising their (mainly white) privilege. And let's face it. There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy to be "helping people in Africa" whilst paying for sex.
Abuse of power amongst staff is common. There are many women in our sector, but the senior leadership is still mainly dominated by men. How many cases do you know of male country directors sleeping with junior staff? In some offices, it's a rite of passage for first-missioneers.
One of us remembers her creepy boss who touched her inappropriately and asked her for 'an agreement of bodies' whilst trying to get his help on a tricky negotiation with a local partner. He then pressured her to go for drinks with him. “Did I go? Yes. I asked a friend to come with me though. Did I report it? Hell no! I didn't want to risk my reputation in the organisation, which depended on me being able to get on with everyone. I did what many women do. I told my friends over a beer in the bar, made sure the door was open when we had to meet, and worked even harder to show I was worthy of attention for more than my body.”
We all have those stories. These are the stories that women tell each other after trainings, in the bars at night. We whisper about how to keep ourselves safe. And now we talk about them on our Facebook groups – some brave women speaking out and others silently lurking, thinking: “Me too. Me too.”
That's what this sexist culture does to you. It makes you doubt yourself. It diminishes you. As someone said in the #MeToo discussions: "I guess I'm lucky only just to have been harassed." Another asked, “how much more could I have done in my life if I didn’t spend so much time thinking, forgetting, dealing, and laughing off these incidences? Where could I have spent my energy?”
The humanitarian world must do better to ensure zero tolerance for sexual abuse and harassment – both against our vulnerable beneficiaries and within our own organisations. We have to change the culture. And it has to start from within. Ask your organisation right now what they have in place to report abuses and how they manage cases. If they can’t answer you, keep asking, because only when we demand change, will the culture actually change. Don’t wait until the next woman whispers her story to you in the dark. Start asking for change from within.
* This is a guest column for IRIN by two anonymous aid workers