Beyond Band-Aids: Fixing Sexual Harassment, Bullying and Abuse of Power in UNAIDS

‘The UNAIDS Secretariat is in crisis, a crisis which threatens its vital work. The leaders, policies and processes at UNAIDS have failed to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power in UNAIDS’.

- Independent Expert Panel on Prevention of and Response to Harassment including Sexual Harassment, Bullying and Abuse of Power at UNAIDS Secretariat, 2018[1]

Women in Global Health has been tracking allegations relating to UNAIDS and congratulate the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) on Prevention of and Response to Harassment including Sexual Harassment, Bullying and Abuse of Power at UNAIDS Secretariat, for their comprehensive and frank report. It is a significant and hard-hitting report that needs immediate action.

We have studied the IEP Report along with the UNAIDS Management Response to the IEP Report, both published on 7th December 2018 on the UNAIDS website. The Panel’s findings and recommendations are summarised below[2]:

The Management Response from UNAIDS does not change our view that UNAIDS has ‘a broken organisational culture’[3] . We believe that was correctly identified by the surveys and other evidence gathering by the Panel.

In particular, the IEP identified:

‘.. a vacuum of accountability. The leadership of the UNAIDS Secretariat fails to accept responsibility for a culture of impunity becoming prevalent in the organisation, a culture that does not ensure a safe and dignified workplace for its staff, and one that fails to respect human rights in line with law and United Nations values.’

‘.. a work culture of fear, lack of trust, and retaliation against those who speak up about harassment and abuse of power’ reported by many staff and in many country offices.

‘ The formal and informal processes for complaints handling are confusing, non-confidential, slow and ineffective, and not independent of the management.’


Although the 5+ Point Plan in the UNAIDS Management Response[4] contains laudable and innovative activities, we agree with the Panel that:

‘ Recent initiatives taken by the UNAIDS Secretariat, particularly the 5+ Point Plan, are little more than bandaids that do not address serious, long-standing and systemic problems. ‘[5]

And we note the IEP’s comment that:

‘The Panel has no confidence that the current leadership can deliver cultural change when that leadership has been largely responsible for the current malaise.’[6]

Any proposal that the current leadership should lead the transformation of UNAIDS is questionable and could further damage the bond of trust between UNAIDS staff, particularly female staff, and leaders who had a duty to ensure staff a safe and dignified working environment. It is far from clear that a leadership team who allowed and enabled the toxic work environment described by the IEP would have the moral authority to lead change to put it right. We therefore support the IEP’s conclusion that ‘the organisational culture of UNAIDS is something for which the leadership of the organisation must be responsible and held accountable‘[7] and support the call to ‘Recondition the Leadership Team’.


Sexual harassment of women in global health is widespread and largely unreported but sadly, it is not new. Inspired by the #MeToo movement in 2017-18 women in all sectors, including the UN, aid and global health sectors, are speaking out about the abuse they have suffered and witnessed – and they are being believed.

UNAIDS presents an apparent paradox. Known for a strong focus on rights and gender equality, UNAIDS is the only UN body to have achieved all 15 performance indicators of the UN’s System-Wide Action Plan on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. In addition, UNAIDS has taken steps to achieve gender parity within the leadership of its country offices. Female Country Directors in UNAIDS increased from 27% in February 2013 to around 50% today. UNAIDS has been regarded as a leader in gender equality within the UN system. Yet evidence from the IEP report suggests success on gender equality in programmes and increasing gender parity in leadership existed side by side with ‘a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority’[8].

The UNAIDS example demonstrates that it is possible for organisations to have centres of excellence in gender equality programming and also have organisational cultures that tolerate sexual harassment of staff and/or sexual misconduct.

Last month, Women in Global Health addressed this paradox in an article ‘A New Vision for Global Health Leadership’[9] outlining a Gender Transformative Leadership approach going beyond gender parity in leadership and focusing on organisational and cultural change. We wrote:

‘Women in Global Health assumes that a gender transformative approach will include gender parity in leadership but will go beyond gender parity to advance gender equality within organizations and in the work of those organizations.’

As UNAIDS now grapples with the organisational transformation urgently needed to address the findings of the IEP we recommend adopting the principles of Gender Transformative Leadership proposed by Women in Global Health:

10 principles of Gender Transformative Leadership:

  1. Grounded in a vision of gender equality and women’s rights.

  2. Challenges privilege and imbalances in power to eliminate gendered inefficiencies and rights deficiencies that undermine global health.

  3. Is intersectional, addressing social and personal characteristics that intersect with gender — race, ethnicity, etcetera — to create multiple disadvantages. In global health, gender transformative leadership would drive equal participation of all genders from all geographies.

  4. Applies to leaders from any gender, not exclusively to women leaders.

  5. Covers leadership at all levels in global health from community to global.

  6. Recognizes different forms of leadership, such as thought leadership, which are not based on simple hierarchy and people managed.

  7. Can be used to describe individuals, institutions, and health systems.

  8. Follows the principle of “progressive realization” allowing for different starting points and contexts but prioritizing inclusion of the most marginalized and excluded.

  9. Always a “work in progress” since power dynamics are constantly changing.

  10. Assumes that gender equality equals smarter global health and that gender transformative leadership is therefore necessary for the achievement of #healthforall

-Women in Global Health 2018


  1. Global health rests on the work of women since women form 70% of the global health and social care workforce and 55% of the staff of UNAIDS. All UN organisations have an obligation to provide a decent work environment free from discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power and to treat staff of all genders with dignity at work in line with human rights and UN values. The IEP found that the working environment in UNAIDS fell below these standards and must be addressed urgently.

  2. Sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power, investigated in UNAIDS by IEP, are longstanding issues in the UN system and global health generally that must now be addressed across the board. The costs of inaction are felt significantly by individual survivors but inaction also weakens global health generally as organisations lose female talent, morale, income, trust and reputation. Finally, the moral standing of the UN system and its work is undermined. The UN cannot be the guardian of human rights whilst failing to protect the rights of its own staff.

  3. Power imbalances between women and men in leadership, pay and contract terms leave groups of female staff vulnerable to abuse of power and harassment. Gender parity in leadership is a critical first step but beyond that, all leaders (male and female) should follow a Gender Transformative Leadership approach based on gender equality, women’s rights and challenging gendered privilege and imbalances in power.

  4. Many of the deficiencies identified by the Panel in UNAIDS are also reported by staff in other UN agencies, including processes for investigating complaints that are not independent of management and not fit for purpose and organisational cultures and gendered power imbalances that increase the risk of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power. The UN system under the leadership of the UN Secretary General should review the lessons from the IEP report on UNAIDS and apply them to transform the whole UN system.

  5. Although the UNAIDS 5+ Point Plan in the UNAIDS Management Response contains many positive initiatives, we believe the Panel were correct to question whether the leaders who enabled the present culture and systems can now lead the transformation to fix them. We support the Panel’s recommendation to change the leadership team and bring in new leaders with appropriate skills and values.

  6. We call for a revaluation of the standard of proof and creating a system that puts people first. While the International Labour Organisation’s Administrative Tribunal (ILOAT) has been used as the standard by UNAIDS and WHO, there is precedence in the United Nations that disciplinary cases do not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, the Panel stress that sexual harassment is different from other forms of abuse of power, harassment and bullying and requires an approach that is sensitive and survivor centred.

  7. We call on the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board, meeting 11-13 December 2018 to support implementation of the recommendations on UNAIDS in the Independent Expert Panel Report.

In conclusion, we recognise that discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power are societal wide challenges but it is time for UNAIDS to go beyond putting bandaids on a problem that requires radical action. Given its mission, the United Nations system and all its bodies have a responsibility to set the highest standards of behaviour and practice them. UNAIDS may be viewed as an exception, given its unique governance model discussed by the IEP but the Panel’s report points to UN wide deficiencies that must be addressed. All UN agencies, including the WHO, should be assessing their policies and processes against the Panel’s recommendations on governance, leadership and management and doing things differently through Gender Transformative Leadership.

[1] . Independent Expert Panel (IEP) on Prevention of and Response to Harassment including Sexual Harassment, Bullying and Abuse of Power at UNAIDS Secretariat, 2018

[2] IEP as 1 above

[3] IEP as 1 above

[4] UNAIDS Management Response to IEP Report, 2018 www.UNAIDS%20report/management-response-to-iep-report_en.pdf

[5] IEP as 1 above

[6] IEP as 1 above

[7] IEP as 1 above

[8] IEP as 1 above

[9] Women in Global Health A New Vision for Global Health Leadership, 5 November 2018, Devex

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