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Why transactional sex is difficult to stop in the aid sector

‘Safeguarding experts have been hired in droves.’

A nude woman on a bed
(Ahmed Ashhaadh/Unsplash)

The most common type of sexual misconduct by humanitarian staff is transactional sex.

It is generally not criminal and involves some level of negotiation and agency on the part of victims. And, in part, that’s what makes it so difficult to stamp out.

It’s sometimes called “survival sex” – but in the context of extreme deprivation, desperation, and insecurity, what choices do the survivors really have? 

Sex is traded, under varying levels of coercion, for money, protection, or, as in the latest allegations from the Democractic Republic of Congo, jobs with international aid organisations. Some aid workers have also been accused of withholding humanitarian supplies until they receive sexual favours.

The international community has known for more than 20 years that sexual misconduct by aid workers is a serious issue that violates the foundational values on which humanitarian work is based. 

Sexual exploitation and abuse encompasses a diverse set of behaviours beyond transactional sex, including sex trafficking, rape and violent abuse, prostitution, and the production of pornography.

Preventing it, and holding perpetrators accountable – particularly for transactional sex – is hard.

Here’s why:

Power: 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. One Bosnian woman who worked with international organisations during the siege of Sarajevo told me that she was once so desperate for food for her family that she took home a can of fish from the office supplies. Her boss and a security officer admonished her for stealing the next day. “What he didn’t realise,” she said, “was that if he’d offered to buy me a pizza for lunch if I had sex with him, I would have said yes.”

Enforcement: Although the UN’s “zero tolerance” policy and NGO codes of conduct prohibit transactional sex, the complex nature of this behaviour presents a challenge to training, reporting, and investigation mechanisms. Senior officials from numerous organisations have told me that they tend to focus on allegations of sexual abuse rather than sexual exploitation because the latter are “just too difficult”. Investigating allegations of rape, by contrast, seems more straightforward.

Reporting: In addition, reporting rates are low. Many people do not know how to report their experiences at the hands of international personnel to the relevant authorities or, if they do, shame and stigma discourage them. Local and international humanitarian staff have reported fearing retaliation if they report sexual misconduct perpetrated by their colleagues. Others have told me that they didn’t report what seemed to be exploitative behaviours by colleagues because they didn’t know exactly what was going on at the time. Instead they distanced themselves from the perpetrators professionally and personally, but in retrospect often wished they’d spoken out.

Investigations: Where investigations are launched, they may be difficult to conclude because of the challenges of gathering evidence. Where allegations are substantiated, accountability options are limited, particularly where no criminal offence has taken place or where local jurisdictions lack robust legal frameworks around sexual violence.

So what is needed?

Recently, there has been a flurry of activity to strengthen prevention and accountability mechanisms for sexual misconduct in the humanitarian sector. Reports have been releasedtraining programmes revisedconferences held, and reporting mechanisms established. Safeguarding experts have been hired in droves. 

INTERPOL has been tasked with developing a more robust law enforcement response to perpetrators and helping prevent sexual predators moving between organisations. Although still in its initial phase, the scheme is doing important work with local law enforcement agencies in Asia and Africa to identify what resources and operational support are necessary to hold perpetrators accountable, and with aid agencies to improve their prevention and detection of misconduct. 

There has been a flurry of activity to strengthen prevention and accountability mechanisms for sexual misconduct in the humanitarian sector.

The UK government is also establishing a global register of aid workers who may have perpetrated abuse to share information on misconduct and effectively blacklist perpetrators, and an alliance of humanitarian organisations has already set up an Interagency Misconduct Disclosure Scheme

While important, these initiatives will not get to the heart of this problem unless the sector truly grapples with the dynamics of power, gender, and entitlement that shape the choices made by some aid workers to exploit and abuse locals, and that mean that few are reported or investigated in the first instance. 

This is a deeply social issue and it requires a holistic response. To more effectively prevent and punish sexual misconduct, organisations and aid workers must engage more openly and honestly with their behaviours in relation to local communities.

Instead of relying on a conduct and discipline approach governed primarily by HR systems, organisations need to complement rules-based training with ongoing opportunities for discussion about a mission and their role in it, to ensure personnel understand not only what rules govern their behaviours, but why they have been deployed, how their everyday behaviours affect the goals and outcomes of a humanitarian mission, and to what end certain behaviours have been proscribed. 

They need to ensure that leadership is committed and accountable to safeguarding policies and have an understanding of gender and power as driving forces of misconduct. And they need to move away from understanding sexual misconduct as something individual staff perpetrate, but see it as the product of the complex environments in which they work and address the causal and contextual factors that give rise to them.

This is critical, because while the number of perpetrators is small, the effects they have are huge: on the lives of their victims, the outcomes of the missions they work within, and on global perceptions of the legitimacy of the humanitarian project.

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