In the era of #AidToo, global health is short on sexual harassment policies

A group of women hold a demonstration at the 2018 International AIDS Conference, calling for the resignation of UNAIDS Director Michel Sidibé after the sexual abuse scandal at the agency. Photo by: Steve Forrest / Workers' Photos / IAS

MANILA — Only 25 of 198 organizations working in global health have comprehensive sexual harassment policies, according to a new report published Thursday.

Among other sobering findings is the fact that just over half, or 56 percent, of the organizations surveyed have commitments to zero-tolerance to sexual harassment at work, and clearly defined definitions of sexual harassment with examples.

“Without transparency, I worry that we’ll not see the pace of progress that is needed.”

— Kent Buse, co-founder, Global Health 50/50

The majority of the organizations surveyed are from Europe and North America, with only 13 based in the global south.

The findings from Global Health 50/50 raise significant questions given how sexual harassment cases continue to rock the aid sector. Just last December, an independent panel of experts found a prevailing culture of tolerance of harassment and abuse of authority at UNAIDS.

Lack of understanding of best practices

Sarah Hawkes, co-founder of Global Health 50/50 and in charge of data collection for the report, told Devex she was only “somewhat surprised” with the findings.

“I think what is possibly more concerning is that from discussions with people in the field, there is a lack of understanding that there are 'best practice' examples of policies already in existence,” she said. Hawkes is director of the Centre for Gender and Global Health at the University College London in the United Kingdom.

The report, titled “Equality Works,” measured organizations against four best practice elements of a comprehensive sexual harassment policy. One of them is whether an organization has a clear definition of harassment, clear commitment to zero-tolerance, and provides examples of unacceptable behaviors.

Some of the most common forms of sexual harassment the report received include sexual stories and offensive jokes or remarks, including on an individual’s appearance or sexual activities. Others include unwelcome discussions on sexual matters; gestures or body language that are sexual in nature; and touching.

The other three best practice elements include whether organizations have a policy that guarantees confidentiality and nonretaliation for complainants; have clear procedures for reporting and investigation of cases; and have mandatory training for all staff.

Kent Buse, co-founder of Global Health 50/50 and chief of strategic policy directions at UNAIDS, meanwhile, said organizations’ lack of policies on sexual harassment could also be due to the slow process in which organizations develop and approve policies.

Low commitment, even lower implementation

The organizations in the review included NGOs working in global health, philanthropic foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United Nations agencies and programs, medical journals, research institutions, public-private partnerships, and private firms such as pharmaceutical companies.

But out of the 198 organizations which were selected, the report authors were only able to review the sexual harassment policies of 86 of them. Seventeen shared their policies, but deemed them confidential. The rest didn’t have any publicly available sexual harassment policies online, nor shared them with Global Health 50/50.

“For half of the organizations, it simply means that we couldn't find any policy on their websites and they didn't send us one. It doesn't necessarily mean they don't have one. So really, this is about transparency rather than about policies, per se,” Hawkes said.

Of the 86, 77 percent have procedures for case reporting and investigation, and 76 percent have a policy guaranteeing confidentiality and nonretaliation. Fewer still, 48 percent, require staff training, which Hawkes said is the “only real measure of policy implementation.”

“This is an area where all organizations fare less well than across our other domains. So, it speaks to the need to move from words on paper to action in practice,” she said.

Of the different global health sectors in the report, U.N. agencies and programs ranked highest in terms of having sexual harassment policies available online. Yet the U.N. has had its fair share of sexual harassment scandals and a poor record in handling them.

In January, a U.N. survey conducted by Deloitte revealed how particularly vulnerable junior and temporary staff at the United Nations to sexual harassment. About 49.3 percent of junior professional officers and associate experts likely experienced sexual harassment. 39 percent of U.N. volunteers and 38.7 percent of consultants also reported having experienced sexual harassment.

Hawkes said that while they emphasize the need for a policy in the report, they also argue that the policies are “the first step not the final step” and that policies are “insufficient for organizational change.”

Hope for the future

The authors were most disappointed by the unavailability of sexual harassment policies for review by a number of global health organizations.

“Without transparency, I worry that we’ll not see the pace of progress that is needed,” Buse said.

But he hopes the report will help encourage organizations to publish their policies online.

To address gaps on best practice policies, the team at Global Health 50/50 plans to include a resources page for organizations on its new website.

Health organizations make some progress on gender

A new report on gender equality shows a sort of "sea change" in the health sector. Twenty-five organizations have introduced new policies or assessed old ones to address gender gaps.

“If GH5050 is able to do one thing, it is hopefully to make sure that organizations are aware of good guidelines [and] policies in existence and don't feel like they need to reinvent this particular wheel,” Hawkes said.

In the report, they listed examples of what different organizations are doing on specific policies on sexual harassment. Pfizer and Management Sciences for Health provide specific examples of sexual harassment, while the World Bank provides an outline of its informal and formal complaint reporting processes.

The issues raised in the report forms part of the global problem of sexual harassment at work worldwide. One-third of countries don’t have laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, according to 2017 data from the World Policy Analysis Center’s discrimination at work database, leaving some 235 million women vulnerable to sexual harassment in the workplace every day.

This not only hinders women’s potential and abilities to realize their full capabilities but can also cost organizations and the economy. A new report by CARE Australia, obtained by Devex, notes that in 2018, an Australian study found each reported individual sexual harassment case cost a company an average of 25,000 Australian dollars ($17,600). In Cambodia, the cost of sexual harassment to the garment manufacturing industry is approximately $89 million a year.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.