Victims of war are supposed to be protected by humanitarian law and organizations empowered by the international community when an armed conflict occurs. Somehow, since February 2002, this task has been fulfilled without any major outcry. And until now — at least, outside the realm of the UN Refugee Agency and its partners — everybody thought that sexual exploitation perpetrated by aid workers, peacekeepers, and community leaders was a nightmare of the past. Specially after the February 2002 release of a UN report exposing the case of refugee children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone subjected to widespread sexual abuse and exploitation, reportedly by employees of national and international NGOs, UNHCR and other UN bodies. Not only did the world assume that the perpetrators of such acts were once and for all banned from interacting with victims of war, but it was also understood that humanitarian agencies have immediately taken necessary measures designed to prevent further abuse. The major Non Governmental Humanitarian Organzations (Oxfam, Save the children, etc…) and the UN agencies engaged in humanitarian response even committed themselves to setting up internal structures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of victims of war.
A few years later, nothing has changed. The sexual abuse of vulnerable women and girls by international aid workers is still “endemic”, with perpetrators easily moving around the sector undetected, according to a damning UK government report published today.
This latest scathing report by the House of Commons International Development Committee comes after historical allegations of harassment and sexual abuse by employees of several top aid organizations, including Oxfam and Save the Children, have surfaced several times since 2002. Those allegations prompted the Committee to launch an inquiry into abuse in the aid sector last February.
As described in the following video, today’s report found sexual abuse and exploitation to be “endemic across the international aid sector” and that includes both locals and staff members. Abuses ranged from unwanted sexual comments to rape.
“The power imbalance is predominantly, although not exclusively, men abusing women and girls,” said the report, which warned that the cases that had come to light were likely just the “tip of the iceberg”
A cause of “deep concern and alarm” was the ease with which individuals known to be predatory or potentially dangerous were able to move undetected from one aid organization to another, the report added.
The committee also criticized aid groups for failing to tackle the problem despite being aware of reports of abuse for years. “Repeatedly, reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and/or peacekeepers have emerged, the sector has reacted, but then the focus has faded,” the report revealed.
Chair of the committee, MP Stephen Twigg, told the press that the report reveals “the collective failure over a period of at least 16 years by the aid sector to address sexual exploitation and abuse.”
He added that in effect, organizations had often put “their reputation ahead of women, children and other victims of sexual exploitation and abuse.”
These problems are not new, and there are many aid workers who have spent their careers trying to rectify them. But this report produced by the UK parliament presents a clear-cut case of how far the aid industry still has to go for its pledges of transparency and accountability to ring true.
“It breeds an arrogance and a sense of exceptionalism that allows [white] people to do things they would not do in their own country,” says Shantha Bloemen, an independent consultant who has spent years in the aid industry. “They rationalise the perks and use their status of ‘saving the world’ as a way to pretend that they are above any reproach.”
The US writer Teju Cole encapsulated the essence of this outrage in an article for the Atlantic magazine headlined “The White-Savior Industrial Complex”. The substance of Cole’s criticism is that much support for humanitarian causes is really designed to satisfy the emotional needs of privileged white people — when they would be more usefully engaged focusing their attention on reversing damaging western foreign policies. “One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism,” Cole wrote. “It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa
and become a godlike saviour or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.”
Today’s UK Parliament report reveals that sexual misconduct by aid workers and peacekeepers had a “documented history stretching back nearly 20 years.”
The report recounts the sexual exploitation and abuse of girls between the ages of 13 and 18 by United Nations and aid agency staff in refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2001. One victim said that “an [aid] worker made me pregnant but now he left me and is loving to another young girl.”
Victims suffered other problems including abortions and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. The devastating knock-on effects of abuse included a loss of education and skills training, reduced employment opportunities and social exclusion, the report said.
A “boy’s club” culture within organizations also meant sexual harassment and abuse of staff could thrive unchallenged, the report also found. In recent months the #MeToo movement had helped shine a light on sexual misconduct, the report said, but the aid sector still had a long way to go to change.
Will a call for improved processes — a global register of sexual predators who used to be aid workers, for example — and a change in culture at humanitarian organizations, including the UN improve the condition of victims of wars?
With Matthew Green & Sheena McKenzie