A woman reports sexual harassment. Her contract is ended 10 days later.

A U.N. protection of civilians site in Malakal, South Sudan, where humanitarians and peacekeepers live and work in close proximity. Photo by: IOM / Bannon 2015 / CC BY-NC-ND

NAIROBI — It was 3 1/2 months after Faith moved to South Sudan in 2016 as a humanitarian worker that she said she was sexually harassed by a staff member of the United Nations.  

Ten days after reporting the alleged harassment to Medair, the Swiss-based humanitarian organization she worked for, her contract was terminated.

Medair told her that the situation in the city where she worked — Malakal, which is about 30 miles from the border of Sudan — was not safe for her, and that the organization would no longer employ women who were not recruited locally. She was the only person among the organization’s staff that fit that description.

But Faith, who wishes to have her last name withheld, said she was not given details on the security assessment that took place — and from her perspective, nothing had visibly changed over 10 days that would make the situation suddenly worse for women recruited outside of Malakal only.

She believes that her report of sexual harassment led to losing her job — a claim that Medair denies, although it acknowledged when approached by Devex that it “could possibly have done better on looking more broadly to find an alternative job for her.”

"If what Medair did was the best that they could do, and they did not see that they could have done more, then there's no hope for other women."

— Faith, sexual harassment survivor

While the incident happened four years ago, Faith says she continues to carry the trauma with her — and it has weakened her desire to work in the aid sector. Meanwhile, it is unclear what consequences the man who allegedly sexually harassed her faced.

It took nearly two years before Faith had the strength to confront the organization about what she describes as a mishandling of her case, and another two before she felt comfortable talking about it publicly.

"I can understand why most women, in general, don’t report," Faith told Devex. "If what Medair did was the best that they could do, and they did not see that they could have done more, then there's no hope for other women."

The incident

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Faith grew up in rural parts of Africa, moving to the United Kingdom at 17 years old.

“As kids, we climbed trees, made our own footballs and toys by reusing materials, we walked far distances to get an education and chased cars on the rare occasions we saw one,” she said.

Her upbringing heavily influenced her decision to pursue a career in international development and humanitarian work. She witnessed kids kicked out of class because they hadn't paid their school fees, or couldn't afford uniforms or books.

With the financial support of friends and a few charities, she was able to afford distance learning at a university. For parts of those four years, she volunteered in Tanzania and Rwanda — studying in the evenings, at times, by the light of a flashlight when the electricity went out.

"I couldn’t forget some of my classmates who hadn’t made it to university, not of choice, but out of a lack of resources. My passion was to contribute something meaningful and work alongside those who were economically disadvantaged," she said.

After graduation, her first job was as a program manager for a youth empowerment program in Sierra Leone. She then worked in a coordination role in the West Africa Ebola response.

After that, in May 2016, she signed a two-year contract with Medair.

Faith worked as a manager of an emergency response team in Malakal, working primarily with displaced people in a camp on the outskirts of the city — people who had fled intense violence in the Upper Nile region.

She was overseeing the organization’s distribution of items such as blankets, buckets, and mosquito nets.

Three and a half months into her contract, she accepted an invitation to visit the home of a senior staff member of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission, in the middle of the afternoon — a man she had only known professionally. She said he sexually harassed her, including inappropriate touching. She reported the harassment to the U.N. and two investigators arrived in Malakal to begin their investigation.

In the days that followed — as Faith sorted through her trauma — she had concerns that if she told Medair, it could complicate her position with the organization. Because of this, she decided to just deal directly with the U.N.

But several days later, she was out to lunch and saw the two investigators with the alleged perpetrator.

“Crossing paths with them was a horrible moment because that’s when I realized the Malakal base was too small, there was nowhere to escape, no place to hide, no place to take refuge and I guessed it would only be a matter of time before he and I bump into each other with no one around,” she said. “This is when I decided to tell Medair.”

As part of its response, Medair’s country director told Faith that this was why the organization advises against women visiting men’s private homes.  

Medair then evacuated Faith to Nairobi, where she spent time with a psychologist to help cope with the trauma.

In an email to a health adviser at Medair, the psychologist wrote that Faith was going through the “normal range of traumatic response,” with symptoms including self-blame, fatigue, demotivation about returning to work, and restlessness. 

After a little over a week in Nairobi, she returned to South Sudan’s capital city of Juba. The next day, she met with two members of Medair who told her that her contract was terminated.

They told her that Medair, moving forward, would not send women to work in Malakal who were not recruited from the local area, because of security concerns, and that the organization would find a man to fill her position. She was the only woman recruited internationally working in Malakal for Medair at the time — but the organization did employ women from the surrounding area.

A transfer to another position was not possible, they told her. If she wished to work with the organization again, she would need to go through the internal recruitment process to apply for a job.

“I had just been through a traumatic experience and then I received this other shocking news. My ability to even process this information was limited,” she said.  

Faith said she asked Medair to wait until the U.N. finished its investigation, arguing that the alleged perpetrator could be removed from his post as a result — but that the organization declined, saying the decision was already made.

In the termination letter sent to Faith the next day, which she signed, Medair put the justification as “safety and security concerns.”

"You're in a place of vulnerability in that moment. You're thinking: Maybe an organization can make such decisions? You're just not in a place to think rationally,” she said. “So I just signed the termination of employment.”

She left the country a week later.

A month later, the U.N. sent Faith its findings in a letter stating that “although the investigations could not conclusively establish a case of sexual harassment as reported” it found that the actions and behaviors of the U.N. senior official, “in particular physical conduct, were inappropriate and clearly unwelcomed by you.”

The letter added that the U.N. regretted the “inconvenience” of the incident telling her that it has taken “appropriate action” against the alleged perpetrator.

It’s still unclear what sort of action the U.N. took against him.

Devex reached out to a spokesperson for the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan who said that “documents and information covered by legal privilege and/or related to internal investigations are confidential.”

It’s also unclear what threshold for proving sexual harassment the U.N. used in its investigation of Faith’s report.

The U.N. declined to comment on how an investigation could find that there was inappropriate physical conduct yet not “conclusively establish a case of sexual harassment.” The U.N. policy on sexual harassment, in place in 2016, defined the act to include “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature," according to a U.N. spokesperson.

Unanswered questions

At the time, the organization told Faith broadly that the termination was a result of safety and security — but she said Medair had not specified that its concern was the threat of future sexual harassment. Until details emerged in the course of reporting this story, she was under the impression that they were referring to general insecurity in Malakal, because South Sudan was a country in civil war.

Because of the lack of information given, Faith had many questions over whether her termination was justified. What were the security grounds that led to her dismissal? What assessments did Medair conduct to determine that Malakal was unsafe for only certain women? What mitigation measures could the organization have attempted in order to reduce the risk?

After the incident, Faith accepted a year-long contract with another organization in Liberia. But following that, she decided to take a year off in order to heal — she traveled, learned a new language, picked up dancing, and took time to process her feelings of self-blame. She tried to put what happened behind her and decided to not contact Medair to express that she felt her case had been mishandled.

“At this point, I was focusing on my health and gaining strength. I had no emotional strength to contact them,” she said.

But she continued to carry the trauma with her — from both the alleged harassment and the abrupt termination of her contract.

In June of 2018 she decided to email David Verboom, the chief executive officer of Medair.

“I do hope that Medair will work to create an environment where women or victims of sexual harassment can freely report cases without fear of retaliation or discrimination,” she wrote to him.  

Verboom wrote back, looping in the organization’s general counsel, to assess whether Faith’s termination was handled “appropriately and fairly.”

A month later, after a review of the case, Medair’s general counsel emailed Faith and thanked her for the “very professional way” she brought the issue to the leadership’s attention. He wrote that the organization, which is Christian-based, would “take on board” her suggestions, including “improving systems to allow women to come forward.”

“We pray that He will continue to heal you and give you peace,” he wrote.

Not satisfied with that response, she pushed back for more information. She was then told by the general counsel that a review found the staff “handled this matter appropriately and fairly.” He said her contract was not terminated to discriminate or retaliate against her.

Faith wrote back to the general counsel and Verboom that she was “absolutely appalled by Medair’s saintly response” and its failure to acknowledge that the organization could have handled her case better.

Neither responded.

"They went silent. I was hurt again. It opened wounds that sometimes you think are gone and then you realize it's like layers. It's like you're peeling an onion," she said.

All of her questions on what steps the organization took to reach the decision to remove her from Malakal went unanswered.

While her initial intention was not to go public with her story, in June of this year, she decided to share her story on Facebook.

“And even when I clicked that send button, to share my story, I shed some tears and there was a sense of relief,” she said. “There was a sense of: You know what? I have said it and I'm confident in what I said."

In a written statement to Devex, Verboom expressed regret that Faith was sexually harassed while working for the organization.

"At that time we tried to find the best possible solution for Faith, and we believe that the involved leaders did find the best option based on the information and possibilities available," he wrote.

"We could possibly have done better on looking more broadly to find an alternative job for her, and will learn from this and do better next time.”

The risk of sexual harassment was ‘too high’

At the time, humanitarian organizations working in Malakal shared living accommodation and office space within the U.N.’s camp. This is where Medair housed staff recruited internationally or from other parts of South Sudan. While Medair also employed women from the Malakal area, these women were able to live with their families outside of this compound.  

Faith was not the first female aid worker to report sexual harassment in this living space, according to Medair. In the year leading up to Faith’s report, Medair said it was involved in discussions with others in Malakal’s humanitarian community to advocate for improvements in the environment where the aid workers lived.

Medair said that mitigation measures had included educating potential harassers and reducing their "inappropriate access" to staff.  

Following Faith’s report, the organization decided that it had done what it could to reduce the risks, and that these efforts were not enough to adequately reduce those risks moving forward.  

A Medair spokesperson said that after a security assessment, it decided it could not deploy female staff that were not locally recruited because “the risk of further incidents of sexual harassment [was] too high."

“This decision is not based on gender, but rather on the protection of staff. The risks for male staff were not the same as they were for female staff. There had been no reports of sexual harassment affecting male staff,” the spokesperson added.  

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The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirmed to Devex that it was one of the organizations that participated in discussions around allegations of sexual harassment against aid workers in Malakal in 2015 — the year before Faith’s incident. It also said that a memorandum of understanding was created in 2016 for people living in the U.N.’s bases, asking for their commitment to work to prevent sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse.

Other groups also recount efforts at the time to reduce sexual harassment against humanitarians, as well as to protect civilians.

However, several other humanitarian organizations operational in Malakal at the time said they had no record of particular issues around sexual harassment at the hub. And no group told Devex it had restrictions on the employment of women.

To Faith, the organization's justification doesn’t make sense. She reported that the incident happened in the middle of the afternoon which left locally recruited women exposed as well. She also lived in a separate compound from the man she reported had harassed her — she lived in the compound for humanitarians while he lived in the UNMISS compound, the military arm of the U.N. in Malakal, where the peacekeeping forces lived. She says she never felt insecure in the compound where she lived.

According to the recollection of Medair staff, when Faith returned to Juba, she expressed that she did not feel it was safe to return to Malakal and agreed with Medair’s decision to not have her return — claims that Faith disputes.

Medair said its staff had no recollection of Faith asking them to wait to make a decision until after the U.N. had finished its investigation.

But the facts surrounding the verbal conversation when her contract was terminated were not adequately recorded.

The Medair spokesperson acknowledged and apologized that its record-keeping in 2016 “was not as comprehensive as it could have been.”

The spokesperson also said that it “could have been clearer” in its discussions with Faith.

Faith’s role in Malakal was eventually filled by a man. While it continues to employ men in Malakal without limitations, the organization said it has only employed locally recruited female staff at this location, following Faith’s departure.

Medair said that the decision to terminate Faith’s contract was not made punatively as a result of her reporting sexual harassment.

 “It was a cop out … a woman has been assaulted and it’s easier for an organization to just get you out.”

— Faith, sexual harassment survivor

“Medair considers sexual harassment of our staff to be unacceptable; all staff are strongly encouraged to report any such incidents. Medair did not and would never terminate a staff contract for experiencing or reporting sexual harassment,” according to the spokesperson.

A U.N. spokesperson also said that its agency-wide policies on sexual harassment have been strengthened since U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres took office in 2017 — shortly after Faith left South Sudan. This includes a strengthened investigation system, with a specialized team mostly compromised of women, a helpline to facilitate reporting, improved data collection, mandatatory staff training programs, the adoption of a systems-wide definition of sexual harassment, and an internal screening database to prevent the U.N. from rehiring perpetrators.

The consequences of sexual harassment

The ways in which humanitarian organizations respond to sexual harassment are not uniform.  

Some major humanitarian organizations told Devex they would consider removing a person from their post if the risk of sexual harassment was high enough, but that they would either not terminate that person’s contract or would be hesitant to do so. They would instead seek to redeploy the person elsewhere, if necessary, and would work with them to find a solution collaboratively.

Others said that they would not remove a staff member from their post based on the risk of sexual harassment, but would instead put in place measures to reduce the risk for their female employees.

The Danish Refugee Council, for example, said that its safety policy does allow it to remove staff members if they are in danger, but that it would be compelled to "rule out other options before resorting to terminating an employee’s contract — particularly if that employee is the survivor of sexual harassment,” according to a spokesperson. This could include temporary redeployment to another duty station, or a permanent reassignment.

The U.N.’s World Food Programme said it might consider relocating staff, after assessing the level of risk, but not terminating the person’s contract.

For Faith, the impacts of what happened linger.

“You have the trauma that you're carrying with you,” she said. “That's why four years later, everything still comes up.”

The experience of being sexually harassed and the ways in which both Medair and the U.N. handled her case have altered the course of her life. While humanitarian work once felt like a calling, it has, in many ways, lost its appeal. Over the past four years, she has only worked as a humanitarian for about 18 months.  

“We don't need to dismiss women because the environment is unsafe for women. We need to add more women in organizations,” she said. “It was a cop out … a woman has been assaulted and it’s easier for an organization to just get you out.”

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a Global Health Reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.