Does the Humanitarian Sector Have a Problem with Sexual Violence?

17 June 2016
Lucy Heaven Taylor

by Lucy Heaven Taylor

Lucy Heaven Taylor is an accountability and PSEA specialist with 17 experience in the sector.

Humanitarian response should represent the very best of human nature. However, our behaviour doesn’t always reflect this high ideal. With International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict coming up on 19 June, this blog asks: does the humanitarian sector have a problem with sexual violence?

With International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict coming up on 19 June, this blog asks: does the humanitarian sector have a problem with sexual violence?

Humanitarian response should represent the very best of human nature. After all, we are here to assist the most vulnerable in society. However, as we all know, our behaviour in reality doesn’t always reflect this high ideal. Sexual violence, exploitation and harassment are as prevalent in our sector as in the outside world – if not more so.

Sexual violence against NGO staff has made the news recently, with several survivors coming forward to share their stories. Staff are beginning to speak more openly about the fact that sometimes, the perpetrators are other humanitarian workers. News agencies such as The Guardian have looked into the issue with articles like this one.

Currently there are no figures on sexual violence and harassment against humanitarian workers by other staff, so it is not possible to compare the prevalence to that of incidents in the general population. However anecdotally, it is very clear that sexual violence and harassment do happen in the humanitarian sector. Survivors share their stories informally with those of us who work on these issues but are often very reluctant to bring formal complaints, saying things along the lines of “I was young, it was the beginning of my career and I didn’t want to be the one making a fuss”. And when survivors do come forward, as in the examples shared with The Guardian, they are often dealt with ineffectually and inappropriately.

What causes these issues in our sector, and why aren’t more people coming forward?

The high turnover of staff might be one contributing factor. Staff work in locations for short periods of time, then move on. This means that perpetrators may have left a location before anyone raises a complaint against them, only to appear in another humanitarian response. Survivors may raise the issue after they, or the perpetrator have moved on, meaning it can be easier for management to ignore it; the people involved are no longer around so there’s no need to follow up.

Another issue might be what is sometimes referred to as the sector’s ‘macho environment’; humanitarian workers working in conflicts are traditionally hard-nosed and toughened by their experiences, and complaining might be seen as a sign of weakness.

There is also the possibility that the environment contributes to staff perpetrating sexual violence and exploitation. The usual inhibitors that make this behaviour unacceptable – the structure of community, family, religion and other factors that provide moral boundaries – are missing. In a conflict environment, far from home, these boundaries are skewed and can lead to behaviours that would not be exhibited at home.

Sexual violence against affected populations

The picture is equally concerning when we consider sexual violence by humanitarian workers against the wider community. In 2014 (the most recent figures available), the UN system received a total of 79 complaints of sexual exploitation and abuse by its staff or associated personnel – and these did not include internal cases.

Some of the contributing factors to sexual violence against affected populations are the same as those above. Add in the inherent vulnerability of a population in a conflict situation, and the picture is concerning. Populations displaced by conflict are exposed to multiple protection risks. Traditional coping mechanisms and structures have broken down, and there is a huge imbalance of power between the local population and humanitarian workers, be they national or international staff. Humanitarian workers have access to goods and services that communities desperately need. Perpetrators have the opportunity – and often impunity – to sexually abuse and exploit.

There can also be the issue of endemic issues of sexual violence and sexual exploitation in the context. If these issues are inherent in the community, the affected population may not expect anything different from humanitarian staff, and so will not report concerns. There are of course also many barriers to reporting concerns even if a survivor does want to come forward: fear of retribution, fear of not being believed, not wanting to talk about distressing events, not knowing where or how to complain, lack of access to NGO offices or staff to make the complaint, concerns of family and community getting to know of the incident, and many, many more.

Of course none of these contributing factors should in any way be seen as an excuse.  Perpetrators of sexual violence and exploitation make choices to abuse. The only person to blame for sexual violence is the perpetrator.

So what can we do to make the humanitarian sector a safer place for staff and affected populations? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Have a clear policy of zero tolerance towards sexual violence and exploitation, and ensure all staff are aware of it.
  2. Prevent perpetrators of sexual violence and exploitation from being hired and re-hired by our organisations.
  3. Create an environment where staff and members of the public feel they are able to come forward with their concerns – and will be protected from retaliation for doing so.

Further resources can be found on the CHS Alliance website, and on the IASC PSEA Task Force website. The CHS Alliance is also holding its 2016 Prevention of Sexual Exploitation & Abuse (PSEA) conference in Bangkok on 5 September. The conference will examine the theme “Investigating allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers”. Conference participation is free of charge and is intended for managers, human resources (HR) specialists and decision-makers in the field of PSEA working in the humanitarian and/or development sector worldwide.