To Strengthen Protection from Sexual Exploitation & Abuse, the Humanitarian Sector Must Clean House.
A BBC news piece published two days ago on 10 February has called attention to use and presence of commercial sex workers within international humanitarian action. The piece stated that Oxfam could be facing possible penalties over allegation of sexual misconduct by its staff in Haiti during the 2011 earthquake response. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43020875. Unfortunately, penalizing one NGO will not address what has long become a wide-spread practice permeating the whole humanitarian sector.
Sadly, one of the salient signs or manifestation of international humanitarian foot prints in Africa and other parts of the developing world where international humanitarian action is prevalent is the presence of commercial sex workers in locations where international humanitarian aid workers are present.
United Nations Peacekeepers are the usual suspects when it comes to reports of sexual and predatory behaviors and practices in international presence and assistance. The UN Peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been on the hot seat regarding allegation of sexual abuse and exploitation. Two years ago, almost 1,000 United Nations troops whose units were tied to abuses were expelled; and this included the entire contingent from the DRC. In August 2016, the top UN official in DRC was fired for failing to take enough action on abuse cases. Sexual allegations involving Peacekeeping forces continue to dominate the media, subsuming the prevalence in the international humanitarian sector.
I was posted to Nigeria to Head the Humanitarian Advisory Team in the country few years ago, as the northeast crisis unfolded. I witnessed the expansion of international humanitarian footprint in the country, including facilitating the first series of assessment into the three states affected by the northeast crisis. While based in Abuja, I frequented Maidugari the capital of Borno state which was the epicentre of the crisis. Each visit to Maiduguri saw an increase in the number of commercial sex workers. As the only woman on mission on some of the visits to the state, I started avoiding the hotel pool side for lunch and dinner, instead hiding away in my room after work. Considering the high security around the hotels occupied by international aid workers, I could not understand how the sex workers came into the compound, but they did and increased in number every week as more international humanitarian actors poured into the country.
A couple of months ago, as the #metoo campaign began to gain momentum, IRIN published an anonymous opinion piece from two aid workers on sexual abuse and exploitation in the humanitarian sector. To quote from the report; “In a prestigious humanitarian organisation one of us used to work for, women would do their best to avoid being posted to missions in Africa, not due to hardships in the field but in order not to have to deal with the constant use of sex workers by their male colleagues” https://www.irinnews.org/opinion/2017
While the content of the article was disturbing enough, what was perhaps most distressful is the fact that the aid workers who wrote the piece did not feel safe enough to openly assign their names to it. It is indeed a reflection of the aid environment that women working in a field that purports to implement programming and advocate for instruments for the protection of people affected by natural disaster and conflict do not feel safe to speak up about sexual exploitation and abuse in the humanitarian system/sector.
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called sexual abuse by peacekeepers “a cancer in our system.” And while the UN’s efforts to address these allegations must be commended, the global focus on the sexual abuse from its peace keeping presence has dwarfed the prevalence of sexual exploitation and abuse in the international humanitarian sector.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called on us all to declare in one voice that: “We will not tolerate anyone committing or condoning sexual exploitation and abuse. We will not let anyone cover up these crimes with the UN flag. ... Let us make zero tolerance a reality."
A couple of years ago, I chaired the United Nations In-Country Network for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Kenya, and it was very hard and near impossible for refugees to come forward with cases of sexual exploitation and abuse. We heard they happened, but we could not formally register significant formal cases. If professional women working in the humanitarian sector are too scared to sign their names in an opinion piece on sexual exploitation in the sector, how then can we expect vulnerable and conflict affected women to come forward? To strengthen Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, the humanitarian sector must invest in cleaning house.
Guterres has taken concrete steps to address this through appointing more women in senior peacekeeping positions. This is so well received. But if women are too scared to speak up or there are no clear mechanisms to protect women who speak up then the objective of these appointments would not be met. We must leverage the steps taken by the Secretary-General by being vigilante and calling out these atrocities including empowering staff and colleagues to speak up.