Another damming report today on sexual exploitation and sexual violent crime taking place within the aid sector, by the Victoria Derbyshire BBC programme. We need to create channels to address these issues and to enable staff to feel safe talking about their experiences openly.
Sexual violence has been described as entrenched and endemic within the humanitarian aid sector. Many have reported that perpetrators are often male figures in senior positions, which leaves staff feeling disempowered from speaking out and reporting. Staff describe a culture of scapegoating those who speak out, lack of psychosocial support for those impacted, and lack of sufficient and appropriate policies. Could this be defined as the final catastrophe of mission creep?
Many individuals responded to today’s report defending and protecting the humanitarian sector and highlighting the great work that is being done. There is no question that fundamental and crucial work is carried out on a daily basis, often at the risk of the aid worker, within the humanitarian sector, but at no point should that overlook, or distract our attention from the cold harsh reality that sexual abuse is taking place within the aid sector.
Any form of sexual abuse has always been an uncomfortable subject, and many want to turn a blind eye, as it can stir up difficult emotions. It is not a stain on the humanitarian sector, as we know this type of abuse happens in any profession that deals with power imbalances and vulnerable people, in fact these working environments can become a breeding ground for perpetrators if these issues are not addressed appropriately. So let us not be distracted by the shock factor, and get lost in debates about the good that is accomplished, or condemn the humanitarian organisations by reducing their funding. Let us address these issues as fully as possible, so the lens can be readjusted back to the remarkable work the aid sector continues to accomplish.
We need to support staff better, to enable them to feel safe and resilient within their workplace, not violated, exploited and frightened to speak out. An aid worker who went on her first deployment, was informed that ‘you will witness UN staff taking prostitutes into their hotel rooms, this happens, so turn a blind eye’! We cannot turn a blind eye to those suffering. This leaves a bad taste in the wide, diverse and hungry mouth of the humanitarian aid sector.
Three professionals were interviewed about this topic on the Victoria Derbyshire programme this morning, Shaista Aziz (a previous aid worker), Alexia Pepper De Caires (Campaigner for women’s rights in aid sector), and Carl Wilding (National Council for Voluntary Organisations).
Shaista opened the conversation stating ‘as someone who has worked in the sector for over 15 years I came across these masochistic cultures. Patriarchy is at the heart of this and power. Bartering for sex is about power and abuse.’ Shaista created an NGO safe place, which enables aid workers to tell their stories anonymously. She shared that they had received 80 reports within a two-week period, the majority from women, and a few from men. She also went on to state that these organisations should not be investigating themselves and therefore an independent body should be setup to carry out these investigations.
Alexia agreed with this point stating, ‘The culture has not made it easy for any of us to talk about what we’ve experienced. The organisations are not open to us revealing the extent of the problems. This is the tip of the iceberg… The organisations are taking a line now that they have zero tolerance; it is very hard to believe…. We are not seeing the change and the transformation and the belief of women at the core of this.’
Carl added to this discussion, ‘we don’t have a sufficient culture yet, where people feel they can come forward and talk about these issues.’
So continuing to hold in our minds the amazing work the humanitarian sector do to support those who are disempowered, and holding our respect to the dedicated and passionate staff, how does the humanitarian sector address, as one colleague put it, ‘the dark side of the coin’.
Below are some of the suggested solutions:
The #Metoo campaign has created a virtual community, empowering survivors of sexual abuse to speak out. The last thing we want to do is silence these courageous voices that have taken decades to be heard.
Fiona Dunkley's new book has been described as 'the only source that explores the impact of trauma and critical incidents on aid workers, including sexual violence' and 'the book examines the impact of cumulative stress and trauma on the aid worker and provides practical actions to offer recovery and healing.'
Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers, is available from Amazon.
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