Discrimination and violence against female aid workers will be investigated — top humanitarians

A female aid worker with the European Union’s humanitarian aid arm talks to a refugee in Ethiopia. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND 

Campaigners working to highlight sexual discrimination and violence against female aid workers and development staff have welcomed a move by top humanitarian officials to implement their recommendations to combat the abuse.

The Humanitarian Women’s Network was set up earlier this year by a group of female aid workers in response to growing concerns about the number of women suffering harassment and attacks while working on aid projects.

HWN has petitioned the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which is led by the United Nations and acts as the central forum for the coordination of humanitarian assistance between different agencies, and NGOs, to take up the issue.

HWN called on the IASC to accept a number of recommendations, which includes appointing a high-profile champion and task force to spearhead efforts to tackle the problem, establishing an online anonymous monitoring tool to understand trends in abuse, and issuing a report card to score IASC institutions based on their progress in reforming the workplace.

Development institutions also need to make sure all staff understand the rules governing harassment and abuse, they know how to report it, and they are aware of support and care options, HWN said. The group also recommends IASC launch a broader and more detailed systemwide survey to reach more humanitarian workers, and use that to inform a robust reporting mechanism through which victims can report.

After a meeting held in Geneva earlier this week, Rosalia Gitau, founder of HWN, said she was “encouraged” by the committee’s reaction when they accepted the recommendations.

“The recommendations were overall welcome, I was pleasantly surprised that the audience was so accommodating. I’m fairly encouraged that there will be follow up soon. There was a sense of urgency to the meeting and a clear understanding that this is happening right now and we need to do something and show leadership on the issue,” she said.

The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon, Philippe Lazzarini, who was at the IASC meeting, said: “The issue has been for too long under acknowledged and I am pleased that IASC members have taken significant action towards a safe and respectful workplace for our female colleagues.”

Gitau was prompted to launch HWN earlier this year after a dinner with fellow aid workers revealed they all had stories in common of sexual discrimination of some kind. As a result, Gitau and others formed HWN and sent out a questionnaire to all the female aid workers they knew.

Within 50 days, more than 1,000 people from 70 organizations had responded to the 35-question survey which was conducted on SurveyMonkey in French and English.

Four percent of female aid workers say they have been raped while carrying out humanitarian work, 48 percent reported they have experienced “unwanted touching,” and 55 percent reported they have experienced sexual advances from male colleagues throughout their professional career, according to the survey.

The survey also found many women were discouraged from reporting their experiences due to fears there would be negative professional consequences, lack of trust in the system, or an absence of a mechanism to report to. Of the 31 percent who did report their experience, almost half were met with inaction by their employers, the survey found.

HWN is not alone in research and campaigning in this area. Report the Abuse is another group working on sexual violence and harassment against female aid workers, and was founded 15 months ago by Megan Nobert, who is herself a rape survivor. Nobert went public after her rape at the hands of a fellow aid worker in South Sudan, and was inspired to launch Report the Abuse as a result of her experience.

Nobert is also collecting data and has an online questionnaire which has received 815 respondents so far, although out of that only 41 percent have completed the survey.  The results paint a similar picture to those gathered by HWN.

Both surveys highlight the lack of robust reporting and support systems in place to deal with allegations of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination.

Currently, most organizations are not handling cases very well, Nobert said. She carried out a study last year to assess the internal policies and procedures of 72 aid groups and found that only 16 percent had policies in place.
“It’s an obscenely low bar and many NGOs freely admit they have nothing in place. If there are no procedures or complaint mechanisms, then the case is unlikely to be handled well and a survivor will fall through the cracks,” she said.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. 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.

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