Bringing abuse to light: new evidence on how SEAH manifests in aid system

29 April 2024

by Anaïs Lafite, Humanitarian Adviser, UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office & Gareth Price-Jones, Executive Secretary, Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response

Sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment (SEAH) remains a key issue for those of us in leadership positions in the aid community. While – thankfully – awareness on the issue has increased, our focus still often remains reactive. Reports from victim/survivors are often seen as the trigger for action, rather than understanding that because of the hundreds of thousands of workers worldwide, and the often vast power differential between them and the people they are supporting, abuse is expectable. This requires aid organisations to be ready to deal with incidents as they arise as well as proactively mitigating underlying risks. SEAH is not merely a challenge to be addressed sporadically; it constitutes a severe violation of the rights of those who we should protect from harm. Every incident profoundly undermines the integrity of our efforts to support people in their time of need.

To shift to a more preventive and holistic approach, it helps to build proper evidence on how SEAH occurs across the aid system. Where is it taking place? Who is most likely to carry it out? Who do they work for? Who is most likely to be affected? What happens after reports are made? We simply do not have answers to these today. For this reason, the true scale, prevalence, risk factors and permissive settings of SEAH remain largely unknown, hindering our efforts to effectively mitigate risks or prevent harm from occurring.

To stop abusers harming people in crisis and development contexts, we need a standardised approach, ideally usable by the full diversity of aid organisations, on SEAH data collection, reporting and analysis.

In response to this gap, CHS Alliance and the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), supported financially by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), established a Harmonised Reporting Scheme (HRS) for SEAH incidents. Developed with input from over 60 stakeholders and built upon similar data fields used by the UN, this system collects and reports anonymised SEAH data. Its design allows us to analyse trends and patterns, crucial for understanding and addressing SEAH more effectively, while keeping individual victim/survivors safe.

In its pilot year, the HRS saw over 130 SEAH incidents reported. Each report was a great step towards enriching the sector’s collective knowledge, highlighting the nuances and complexities of SEAH.

The trends from a year of data provide us with key insights on  which countries have the most or no reports, which groups of people seem to be most at risks of SEAH, the profiles of alleged perpetrators, how incidents get reported, which actions are taken by organisations, and important gaps that remain. While these figures are not necessarily representative of the aid ecosystem as a whole, such findings give us a glimpse of trends that can be produced through the HRS, and how they can be used. This valuable information on SEAH provides a guide for action on how we can best prevent it from happening, and what steps we must take to improve our response.

Dive with us into some of the most striking findings from the pilot, which shed light on what our collective priorities should be to better tackle SEAH in the aid sector:

These findings underscore the pivotal role that power and gender dynamics play in the prevalence of SEAH within the aid sector. One such alarming statistic is that one in five alleged perpetrators hold a managerial position, with half of these being senior managers, highlighting a need for approaches that can deal effectively with powerful abusers.

These statistics tell us that organisations supporting people affected by crisis require stringent oversight, better accountability mechanisms, stronger safeguarding policies, and comprehensive training on SEAH for staff and associated personnel of all levels. It is also a stark reminder for organisations to ensure that their complaint and whistleblowing mechanisms protect those who report, including against persons in position of power.

The evidence showing that 84% of SEAH victims are women and girls, with one in five being under the age of 18, points to the gender-specific nature of these violations, while also highlighting that women and girls are not the only victims of abuse – men and boys suffer too. This necessitates the adoption of targeted gender- and child-sensitive approaches to prevent and address such abuses. Integral to these efforts is the commitment to safe programming.

The data also reveals a troubling disconnect: while 54% of SEAH incidents are reported directly to staff members, a third of these reports lead to no action, often because of insufficient information to assess the allegations. This indicates a glaring shortfall in staff preparedness; many are not adequately trained to handle such disclosures, which results in critical information being missed, and, consequently, investigations cannot proceed. It also suggests a need to promote preventative actions that can be taken even when individual abusers cannot be identified or held to account. Training staff in victim/survivor-centred assistance is not just beneficial. It is essential.

So far, the SEAH Harmonised Reporting Scheme is making a difference by providing these insights and recommendations, highlighting the transformative potential of analysing SEAH data across the aid sector. Examining widespread patterns will help organisations to identify action for meaningful change.

As initiators of the HRS, we’re proud of what it’s achieved so far and excited to see changes made based on this new evidence.

We now call on leaders in the aid community to use these findings and join the HRS. As a group, we can build the critical mass required to take it to the next level and create even more robust data sets for more responsive, accountable and transparent action.

We also urge donors to align their reporting requirements with the HRS. FCDO has already started this process, recoginsing the HRS as a valuable funder tool to encourage reporting, analyse trends, manage risk, develop policy and improve transparency and accountability at global and country levels. DG ECHO has largely aligned the data fields of its individual case reporting template to HRS. Some other donors are also working on alignment, which will reduce the reporting burden for partners and allow for stronger and more representative analysis as more organisations join the HRS. Global and institutional adoption of HRS will establish a new standard of commitment to addressing SEAH, marking a crucial stride toward enhanced transparency and accountability.

PSEA Networks also play a key role. By joining forces with the HRS, they can leverage country-specific trends and streamline reporting, leveraging our collective strength against SEAH.

Together, let’s turn these insights into impactful actions.

Delve deeper into the finding by reading the full report.

Join the SEAH Harmonised Reporting Scheme to be part of a movement for safer and more accountable aid.

CHS Alliance resources are available to equip organisations in addressing issues highlighted in this report:

  • Whistle-blower Protection Guidance: practical guidance and policy framework for organisations to develop or update their own whistleblowing policy and to help foster a culture in which people feel safe to speak up.
  • Managing Complaints Package: guidance to develop or update an effective complaint management mechanism to ensure more crisis-affected people receive the accountable support they deserve.
  • PSEAH Index eLearning: 1-hour e-learning course to help you to understand and use the CHS PSEAH Index, to integrate elements to better prevent and respond to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in your own, and your organisation’s work.
  • PSEAH Index: guidance to allow your organisation to verify whether you have the policies and practices in place to prevent and respond to SEAH.
  • PSEAH Implementation Quick Reference Handbook: guidance to provide a complete guide to implementing measures for PSEAH in an organisation or project, with illustrative case study for each key area of the PSEAH index, to equip organisation with real-life examples of how it can look like in practice.
  • Investigator Qualification Training Scheme: accessible, affordable and, in certain cases, free training, particularly supporting women and staff from national NGOs in low- and low-middle income countries.
  • Taking a victim/survivor-centred approach to PSEAH in the aid sector: maps the journey of a victim/survivor from violation to redress, exploring the challenges, existing best practice, and what a victim/survivor-centred approach could look like at each stage. The IASC recently agreed a definition of a victim/survivor centred approach.
  • SCHR leads the Misconduct Disclosure Scheme; which reduces the chances of known abusers being rehired by participating organisations.