Sex abuse in a humanitarian context – time for a culture shift?

Women throughout history have faced sexual violence in conflict environments, but the recent allegations against humanitarian workers’ sexual misconduct might be the beginning of a shift towards fighting gender-based violence worldwide more proactively.

A women and her child walk along the main street of the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, where sexual exploitation by men working for the UN and other international organisations has been reported. Photo: Flickr, Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

Development and humanitarian actors worldwide are stepping up to ensure the safety and security of women and girls in conflict and post conflict settings, as sexual and other forms of gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies are being increasingly reported and documented.  According to UN Women’s latest figures, more than 70 percent of women in crisis situations have experienced at least one type of physical, sexual or mental harm compared with 35 percent of women globally.

Perpetrators of such violent acts include soldiers, terror groups, community members and sometimes, family members. Most shockingly, they also include individuals that are meant to protect and help women. The recent scandals of aid workers from various UN agencies and NGOs involved in sexual abuse have magnified the urgency of tackling violence against women in emergency settings. Indeed, the sexual abuse and exploitation allegations against Oxfam staff in Haiti in the 2011 earthquake aftermath, reported by The Times earlier this year, was a much needed wake-up call to acknowledging the reality of sexual violence post conflict.

Oxfam has taken the biggest media blow lately but many other serious cases are being exposed: BBC recently released that Syrian women are being forced to perform sexual acts on men working in refugee camps on behalf of the UN and international charities, in return for food and water aid. Whistle-blowers have also exposed the UN peacekeepers that were found to have been sexually exploiting young women in Central African Republic between 2013 and 2015.  Save the Children and UNICEF have been added to the list of wrongdoers, particularly in link with individuals high up in their command chain acting with impunity. These reports are proof enough that sexual abuse has been going on for years but has been ignored, suggesting that Oxfam’s misconduct is only the tip of the iceberg.

Tragically, women throughout history have faced sexual violence in conflict environments, as it has in many cases been used as a weapon of war and terrorism according to research led by the Human Rights Watch. Although the reasons behind the acuteness of sexual violence such settings are unclear, it is commonly reported that young women are the most at risk of being victims of such assaults. This is due to their vulnerability in times of chaos, as many are forcibly displaced, separated from family, have lost their means of livelihood and face an accumulation of responsibilities in meeting basic needs, particularly for those who have children in their care. Most of them also live in poverty, and this has led to an abuse of power by humanitarian workers and peacekeepers as women are forced to engage in sexual transactions in return for basic necessities. A major setback in post-conflict settings is the breakdown in law and order, leaving room for individuals to get away with sexual misconduct. The collapse of social infrastructures and the disintegration of families and communities only exacerbate the abuse and already existing gender inequalities in many countries in the developing world.

But most importantly, instead using women’s vulnerability as explanation for the issue of abuse, should we not be condemning those who are clearly profiteering from their positions in the name of “helping” and “saving” those in need? When it comes to humanitarian actors, there is some vile truth in Lord Acton‘s words, “power corrupts”.

Ending the culture of denial… and of male domination

Is this the #metoo of the humanitarian sector?  From Hollywood to post-conflict zones, the sad reality is that power, masculinity and misogyny can find expression through dominating sexual behaviour. Recent scandals are calling for a response that goes beyond action to tackle abuse in the workplace; it requires a worldwide conversation and fight against gender-based and sexual violence. We must put an end to the societal legitimisation of the way men get away with treating women as lesser beings and break the creed of men as figures of power and women as vulnerable and weak.  The sexual exploitation of women is a global issue and is especially prominent in cultures reigned by ideologies of male sexual entitlement.

So, could the Oxfam scandal trigger real change?  It seems to have built up a momentum which could perhaps lead to a commitment to a “zero tolerance” policy in the aid sector, and perhaps more ambitiously, towards ending the culture of male domination and power abuse.

Women, Peacebuilding and fighting Gender-Based Violence

Post-peacekeeping missions can present opportunities for promoting gender equality and women’s rights and examining the ways in which women contribute to rebuilding their countries and communities rather than replicating the conventional image of women as victims of war, armed conflict and disasters, is an important basis for a more positive view on dealing with these issues. The efforts of NGOs and women that are fighting gender based and sexual violence both on the grounds and through their advocacy work must therefore be recognised and supported.

International aid actors are stepping up not only in terms of insuring transparency mechanisms in their field missions, but also in recognising gender-based violence as a human rights violation, acknowledging that women’s safety deserves just as much attention as food and shelter in post-emergency response.

Major donors are also working towards a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence in the aid sector: The international development department of the United Kingdom, one of the largest aid donors, which gives $45 million to Oxfam annually, is threatening to cut funding to aid agencies that fail to address sexual exploitation by their staff in the field.

The UN’s Security Council is also attempting to activate the justice processes in order to fight for the rights of victims by leading investigations and trials, persecuting perpetrators and working with governments to impose stronger legal sanctions for sexual abuse. Putting into effect the UN resolution 1888 (paragraph 23;2009), which calls for the development of joint Government-United Nations strategies to combat sexual violence and support its victims, is a pressing issue.

At the policy level, the gendered dynamics of peacebuilding need to be understood and gender perspectives need to be better incorporated in conflict analysis and management. According to UN Women evidence shows that women’s meaningful participation helps with the conclusion and implementation of peace agreements, yet women are almost completely missing from peace negotiations. Increasing women’s representation in post-conflict governance could not only improve government responsiveness to sexual and gender-based violence against women, but also act as a peacekeeping tool.

UN Women and partners led a global “Orange the World” campaign to end violence against women and girls last year, which sparked activist movements around the world, like this group composed of civil society, UN and general public members in Rabbat, Morocco, to speak up about violence against women. Photo: Flickr, Younes El Moumine/UN Women.

But perhaps most importantly, beyond policies and resolutions, the organisations and women in the developing world that are actively promoting and implementing women’s empowerment in humanitarian action, should be put in the spotlight. They are the ones who educate and train to prevent gender-based violence, who challenge gender stereotypes and who promote human rights. These organisations and individuals go beyond responding to sexual violence by victimising women, but instead want to increase women’s participation in peace-building and put an end to the patriarchal relations of power.

The global attention needs to be harnessed in support to the work of the grassroots activists, community-based organisations, journalists, academics, trade unions, NGOs and social movements who are working towards these ends. It is time for a cultural shift: a deinstitutionalisation of gender inequality in our societies, whether in Hollywood, Darfur or the Rakhine state.

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Categories: Women in Development

About Lou Darriet

Having worked with small business development and inclusive growth in Uganda, Lou has a keen interest in private sector development, social entrepreneurship and international trade and development. She has also worked in China and Thailand in the field of sustainable trade and tourism, and more recently, with an NGO focused on food security and fighting hunger worldwide.

Lou is half-French, half-English, and is currently studying a Master's degree in International Development and Management at Lund University. She has an academic background in Business Administrations and Economics.

In the future she wishes to work with agricultural development and international food chains.

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