#AidToo: Sexual exploitation in international cooperation

After the surfacing of widespread and persistent sexual abuse and exploitation by the staff of relief organisations in the early 2018, the aid and development community is looking for answers. While prevention and adequate response are fundamental, at the same time the development community needs the courage to evaluate and address the root causes of sexual exploitation and abuse. This session explored, among others, the following questions:

  • How should organisations working in the fields of humanitarian aid and development respond to discoveries of allegations of abuse by their staff?

  • What is required to ensure a wider societal and structural change in behaviour, attitudes and institutional priorities to create progress?

  • How to create survivor-centred response mechanisms?

  • How to operationalise a culture of integrity throughout the heterogeneous sector?

Women in Global Health's Project Coordinator Rewan Youssif represented Women in Global Health at this session held by the Graduate Institute Geneva that focused on the sexual exploitation in international cooperation, her talking points are below:

Sexual Harassment is a universal phenomenon and it has been reported in so many countries and organizations, so it's not new but what's new is it's now being voiced, and the women are being believed. An Incident of Sexual Exploitation in an organization involves 3 parties: the woman, the man and the organization where either one or both of them work.

Causes related to the woman:

As WGH, we are engaged on this issue with diverse groups of women in global health. Women are 70% global health workforce, which is around 30 million women. Most work in their home countries. Women health workers in aid settings stationed in remote areas or working in outreach in remote areas and areas are affected by conflict are also highly vulnerable to violence. Kate Hawkins (2018) citing evidence from Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Liberia concludes that (for women health workers):

“Health care is dangerous work….. there is a growing culture of violence and conflict in many settings and austerity measures are leading to increased inequality, which in turn leads to violent acts from third-parties”

Just one example from the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Since 2011, nurses and other healthcare workers have faced increased violence because of the military conflict as well as suspicion and traditional views: this includes rape, molestation in addition to attacks and murder during vaccination campaigns. Solidarité Syndicale Infirmiers du Congo reports that between 2011 and now, over 700 nurses were raped and 188 killed. Our greatest concern is protection for women on the front-lines of global health. Levels of reporting of harassment and abuse are low. This is found across all sectors - women don’t report sue to shame, stigma, fear of not being believed, fear of losing their jobs or other retaliation.

Bringing men into the conversation:

There is no justification whatsoever for any man to abuse the very same people he was sent to protect. Sexual harassment of women is motivated more by gendered power inequalities than by sexual desire. This is a men’s issue not a women’s issue. It is for men to change their unacceptable behaviour and for employers to put in place policies, organizational cultures and accountability mechanisms that hold men to account and eradicate sexual harassment and abuse. Sexual harassment and abuse of women should never be normalized or excused in any work setting. Men not held accountable, and men who are harassing women often go on to even better jobs.

Organizational responsibility:

Many organizations in aid have codes of conduct, the United Nations has one for all UN staff. These codes of conducts have good intentions but they rarely specify the behaviours that are unacceptable/punishable. Humanitarian settings are exceptional and increase the vulnerability of women. Often there is no usual functioning law and order (no police or courts) in a conflict/post conflict setting or natural disaster and there isn't secure housing or transport. There may be no women in senior posts, no critical mass of women in that setting and the women there are often junior.

WGH is pleased that the #MeToo movement has opened up this hidden issue that needs to be made public in global health and needs to be addressed.

We are not doing women a favor by listening to them - listening is not action. If you see something say something, if you hear something do something and if you experience something, reach out and seek help because no one is safe until everyone is safe.

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