Australian sexual misconduct review shows cultural barriers to reporting

Women talking. Photo by: mentatdgt / CC0

CANBERRA — In the year since #AidToo was born, the development and humanitarian sector has taken a hard look at its own issues around sexual harassment, abuse, and violence.

Organizations have been forced to look within to determine whether their structures and practices facilitate such abuses.

“We recommend that the reporting of incidents should be compulsory and through a regulator. Organizations need to create safe spaces and an environment supporting a reporting culture.”

— Maaike Moller, review project manager, Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine

Members of the Australian Council for International Development are among the NGOs that have dug into their own systemic issues. After months of research, a final report, outlining incidents between aid workers or perpetrated by aid workers against aid recipients, resulted in 31 recommendations. Released in November, the report focused on three “domains” of improvement — policies and regulations, social norms and attitudes, and systems and resources.

But what the investigation particularly highlighted was a problem that has become apparent throughout the year: Organizational culture continues to block our true understanding of the extent of sexual abuse and violence within the global development sector.

Barriers to reporting highlighted in the numbers

The investigation by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine began with a best practice literature review and expanded to include stakeholder consultation, an online ACFID member survey, request for reported incidents between 2015-2017, focus groups, interviews, and a field trip to Fiji to research practices in-country.

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“We were guided by our terms of reference which was quite broad,” Maaike Moller, VIFM review project manager, explained to Devex. “Focus groups looked at cultural issues at the sector levels while surveys looked at concrete and procedural [issues] at the organization level.”

A total of 119 ACFID members were asked to contribute to the review, with 95 contributing.

“Most were very happy to participate and forthcoming, but some did require prompting and follow up,” Moller said. “It was understandable given the range of demands placed on them ... on the whole, the response, or participation, rate was high.”

For the incident reporting tool, the response was lower — 86 members contributed to this part of the study. But of these only 20 reported 76 incidents, with 31 substantiated over the three year study period — including four reported incidents of rape, 15 incidents of sexual assault and abuse, and two incidents of children being exposed to pornography and of grooming behavior.

“The Australian Human Rights Commission recently had a survey that said 1 in 3 people had experienced sexual harassment within the past five years,” Moller said. “So certainly, statistically, the incidents reported to us would be a lot lower.”

Of the 76 reports analyzed, the time between the incident and report was commonly not able to be determined with accuracy. Where information was available, a report could be made by the victim anywhere from 24 hours from the incident to up to one month — often reported to and investigated by managers, directors, or coordinators within organizations.

Incidents between aid workers were most often investigated by human resources staff, whereas incidents perpetrated by aid workers against individuals from affected populations were most often investigated by other personnel, including child protection specialists.

But the level of detail available was limited, and less than one-third of incident reports showed evidence of the included being reported or referred to police or local authorities for action. Four rape allegations were reported, but only nine of the 15 reported sexual assault or abuse allegations received further outside action for criminal investigation.

Without clear evidence of criminal investigation, there could be the perception that organizational culture leads to sweeping incidents under the rug.

A total of 66 member organizations reported zero incidents over the three years since 2015. While VIFM believes it is possible that no sexual misconduct occurred, it is statistically unlikely. The data they received is likely to be underreported from all organizations involved, VIFM said — raising the question of why.

“We know that within the Australian Human Rights survey, 80 percent of people who said they were victims of harassment in the workplace didn’t report it to their own organization,” Moller said. “So, it speaks to the fact that it is hard to obtain this information without some type of systemic or compulsory system.”

Anonymous reporting

Beyond the request for reported incidents, a hotline was established to collect anonymous information on incidents — reported or unreported — as an avenue to contribute information that may be hidden from traditional interviews, focus groups, and reporting data. It was not widely utilized.

“We ... got a response but it probably was lower than expected,” Moller said.

Still, from the limited responses, there were consistent themes — issues around confidentiality and confidence in reporting systems, sectoral wide challenges, and cultural malaise. There were also issues and incidents specific to particular organizations which were not documented in the final report.

“In terms of expectation, it was hard to know what to expect but the results were limited,” Moller said. “And that also depends on what people expect to get out of the reporting. It is a big demand for people to engage in what has happened to them, and make that disclosure without there being any tangible benefits — it is an altruistic thing to ask of people to share their experiences for review. We did have the option to refer people onto counselling but at the same time we were aware we weren’t able to directly access personal recourse or justice for them.”

The final report also highlighted issues of anonymous reporting within organizations, including telephone lines, email addresses, and websites, as well as complaints boxes that exist within many of the ACFID member organizations. According to the report, it “does not necessarily enhance the direct benefits which include appropriate investigations and justice outcomes.”

Anonymous reporting, it found, should not detract from creating a safe reporting culture where the victim or survivor is championed and believed — the most effective approach to changing cultural norms and perceptions of poor culture.

“And that’s why we recommend that the reporting of incidents should be compulsory and through a regulator,” Moller said. “Organizations need to create safe spaces and an environment supporting a reporting culture.”

#AidToo is not a quick fix

While #MeToo and #AidToo have sparked an important conversation, focusing on the issues of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence needs to be an ongoing process that reviews policies and practice, and effectively engages with staff to build confidence that victims will be supported through the reporting process.

And this is not just a discussion to be had within the head offices of NGOs. Vulnerable communities receiving support need to be part of the conversation, beginning with awareness raising on what behavior is considered unacceptable from NGO staff and the right to complain.

ACFID’s members have accepted all 31 recommendations from the review with the process of determining how they will be implemented beginning this month.

“The broad principles will be that confidentiality is ensured, there are safe spaces, and it is a safe environment,” Moller said.

“Importantly, there needs to be benefit to reporting — redress or appropriate justice outcome. Perpetrators need to see that there is no impunity — they will receive punishment. And bystanders too need to be aware that there are changed norms and expectations.”

If NGOs succeed in this, Moller said, they will begin building confidence that the reporting systems and processes can actually achieve what they are meant to.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.