1,000 female aid workers call for reforms on sexual abuse

A woman signs a paper. Photo by: RobertCheaib / CC0

LONDON — More than 1,000 female aid workers from all over the world have put their name to an open letter calling for an overhaul of the sector to address sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse, and an end to the “current culture of silence, impunity, and inaction.”

The letter, circulated privately over the past week via email and groups on social media, was published on International Women’s Day with the backing of 1,111 women from 81 countries. While the majority were willing to put their names to the document, more than 200 chose to sign anonymously.

It calls for three major reforms: That organizations must “trust women,” take all allegations seriously and respond quickly; that they encourage and protect whistleblowing about abuses; and that they provide effective leadership and resources to drive home these reforms.

The letter was initiated by four aid workers — Alexia Pepper de Caires, Sarah Martin, Anne Quesney and Danielle Spencer — who have been campaigning against sexual exploitation within the aid system for years. Their message has been amplified by recent revelations.

According to Spencer, who recently published a report on sexual abuse in aid, the letter has received broad support from across the sector, including from high-level figures such as Anne Marie Goetz, former chief adviser on peace and security at UN Women. However, the organizers have opted to list the signatories alphabetically, Spencer said, since “all of the women who signed are equal.”

“We have director-level signatures, but more importantly, women of colour and women in the ‘global south’ are signing on to the letter,” she added, including those from South Sudan, Haiti, Jordan, and Bangladesh, among many others.

But she added that “the women who are most affected by this system of inequality and abuse are those who are perhaps least likely to be able to sign.”

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Explaining the impetus behind it, Quesney said: “We recognized that many women in the sector didn’t feel safe to speak out as an individual and [we] wanted to provide a space for them to have their voices heard collectively. There is something incredibly powerful about joining our voices together and telling our organizations that enough is enough and that things need to change.”

The three key recommendations outlined in the letter are:

1. Trust women: Organizations need to take action as soon as women report sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse; allegations must be treated with priority and urgency in their investigation; the subject of a complaint of this nature must be immediately suspended or removed from their position of power and reach of vulnerable women and girls.

2. Listen: Foster a culture where whistleblowing is welcome and safe — the way to win back the trust of donors, the public, and the communities we work with is to be honest about abuses of power and learn from disclosures. Sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse should no longer have to be discussed in hushed tones in our offices.

3. Deeds not words: We need effective leadership, commitment to action, and access to resources. It is not enough to develop new policies which are never implemented or funded — with the right tools we can end impunity at all levels in the sector.

The letter’s initiators are now calling on aid workers to share the letter with colleagues, and use the Twitter hashtags #AidOpenLetter, #AidToo, and #ReformAid. They also want supporters to lobby their organizations to adhere to the principles outlined in the document.

About the author

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    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.