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Tackling Sex Abuse in the Aid Sector

A new report on the scale and extent of sexual abuse and exploitation in the aid sector should come as no surprise, says Jacqui Hunt of Equality Now.

A report published in July by the UK House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC) has condemned the “complacency, verging on complicity” of the aid sector in responding to widespread sexual abuse and exploitation by its staff. The IDC established its inquiry following revelations that Oxfam covered up accounts of sexual misconduct be senior employees, including allegations that staff made women — some of whom may have been minors — transact sex for aid during the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

The inquiry and subsequent report reveal that this is far from an isolated incident, with the several aid and development organizations involved apparently being more concerned with their reputation than with the safety of victims.

While outrage at these findings is appropriate, unfortunately surprise is not. The inquiry’s report reaffirms what those of us campaigning for change have known for some time: Sexual abuse and exploitation is endemic and is sustained through a lack of accountability for perpetrators. It is carried out in all walks of life, including by the so-called good guys.

A sector-wide issue

For years, aid organizations have systematically ignored problems and failed to effectively implement policies to stop predatory sexual misbehavior, including the use of prostituted women and girls. Let’s be clear. Whether or not you believe prostitution is sexual exploitation, there is no such thing as a child prostitute, and men who “buy” sex from minors are rapists.

Reporting procedures are often unclear or nonexistent, and the prevailing lack of accountability has undermined reporting mechanisms by sending a strong message that there is little to be achieved by disclosing allegations. Even in cases where abuse is reported, culprits have often not been held to account, and instead have been moved to different posts or enabled to get jobs at other organizations within the sector, where they have abused more victims elsewhere. Adding to the toxic mix has been the tendency for whistleblowers to feel penalized, unprotected and at risk of their career being damaged by speaking out.

These issues have made it impossible to accurately measure the true extent of the problem, although according to the IDC, the cases recently made public are just the “tip of the iceberg.”

This kind of impunity for those who sexually exploit and abuse others when they are at their most vulnerable is utterly unacceptable. Aid and development agencies need to put in place effective zero tolerance policies regarding sexual exploitation, including a total and enforced ban on staff and contractor use of prostitution. This involves having a comprehensive understanding about the various crosscutting forms of discrimination and oppression that women and girls may face, and which are exacerbated in situations of conflict and natural disasters.

A lack of support for victims compounds the problem. The IDC report recommends a “victim-centered” approach, where their welfare is put front and center. This needs to be fully integrated across all aspects of the sector’s response.

Indeed, evidence submitted jointly by Rape Crisis and Equality Now is referenced in the report, citing our recommendation that anyone who speaks out about violations should be afforded independent advocacy and support from a specialist in sexual violence and its impacts.

The role of the UN

Addressing these issues will require fundamental changes to be made to the way that aid and development agencies operate, and the IDC’s findings highlight the need for clear and effective leadership to guide best practice in the sector. As the gold standard for international aid agencies, it is the UN that should be leading by example. The United Nations has admitted receiving 70 new allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse from April to June this year alone. However, the UN has itself consistently failed to address sexual abuse and exploitation, not only of aid recipients but also of its own staff — something on which Equality Now has been calling for change since at least 2009.

The IDC report is critical of the UN for its lack of joined-up approach, despite its self-professed “zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse.” This is not the first time that the UN has come under fire for its ineffectiveness in this area, with revelations earlier this year about key exemptions to its policy “making a mockery” of its ongoing fight against harassment.

With the aid sector reeling from the recent revelations, and the extent of the problem clear from the IDC report, it is now more important than ever for the UN to put in place clear, effective policies that protect victims and whistleblowers. The tremendous work achieved by the international development sector should not mean we turn a blind eye to sexual exploitation and other violence and abuse of power perpetrated predominantly against women and girls by men employed in the industry.

It is crucial that all those within the industry take account of the superior position of power that someone from an aid organization may have and can easily exert over those who are vulnerable. Sexual exploitation must end and the exploiters held properly accountable. The UN among others has to fully recognize and internalize its role in achieving this, and step up to the challenge.

*[A version of this article was originally published by Inter Press Service.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.