An aid worker attends to a young refugee girl. Photo by: Aminata Diagne Barre / European Union / ECHO / CC BY-NC-ND

Both male and female lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender aid workers posted abroad are experiencing blackmail, harassment and even so-called “corrective rape” at the hands of their colleagues or security providers, according to a new report.

As Devex has previously reported, sexual violence against humanitarian workers, including harassment and assault, has often been a well-kept secret within the sector. But recently, it has been given more prominence by two advocacy groups — the Humanitarian Women’s Network and Report the Abuse — who collected testimonies from more than 2,000 survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

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Their survey results showed discrimination and assault, especially against female aid workers, to be a serious but chronically underreported problem within the industry and that the perpetrators are often men holding senior positions. Furthermore, many victims are afraid to report abuse due to fears they will suffer professional and personal consequences, including being fired or blacklisted.

Now a new report published on Tuesday by the Feinstein International Center, part of Tufts University, has confirmed both groups’ findings, but also put forward concrete recommendations for aid agencies and the United Nations to follow in order to prevent, and better respond to, cases of sexual harassment and assault against aid workers.

Furthermore, while the Tufts report states that the majority of the victims are women, it also points to troubling levels of sexual identity harassment, blackmail, threats and assaults against LGBT workers, which can be especially dangerous in countries where homosexuality is illegal, and even punishable by death.

“We discovered cases of sexual identity blackmailing, where a supervisor threatens to ‘out’ someone for being not heterosexual. In a lot of operations in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where homosexuality is criminalized, this puts the person’s life at risk,” according to the report’s lead author, Dyan Mazurana, associate research professor at Tufts.

Some of those interviewed for the report also spoke of experiencing “corrective rape” where male aid workers who were perceived to be homosexual were targeted and raped by other male staff as punishment for their sexual orientation. This was done in countries where sodomy is illegal, making it impossible for the victims to report the crime, Mazurana said.

Mazurana explained that LGBT victims can face greater levels of threat than heterosexual women.

“It is different for LGBT victims because everyone in the compound becomes a risk to you. Especially when you are posted in isolated situations, you have to be much more closeted than you would in your own country as you could be targeted for death,” she added.

Mazurana said she found more than a dozen such cases during her research but suspects there are many more that go unreported.

Sexual assault and harassment in the aid sector: Survivor stories

Four female aid workers spoke to Devex about their experiences of sexual harassment, violence and even rape while working on projects abroad. Their stories, told anonymously at their request, highlight some major issues facing women in the industry and the urgent need for reform.

This echoes the findings of the HWN and Report the Abuse surveys of female aid workers, which revealed that cases of sexual violence while on mission were chronically underreported. The surveys found that between 24 and 69 percent of respondents reported being victims, but the Aid Worker Security Database found that only 287 out of the world’s approximately 450,000 humanitarian aid workers experienced violence in 2015, and most of those were shootings or kidnappings.

Reporting levels are low partly due to the perceived lack of support within aid agencies for the victims.

For example, Mazurana said that most aid agencies interviewed did not have formal policies and procedures for abuse against aid workers in place, and that the few that did have them did not specifically discuss sexual-based crimes against LGBT staff.  

When abuse was reported, agencies’ responses often included victim blaming, blacklisting the accusers and even firing them for coming forward while their alleged perpetrators remained unpunished, according to the report.

Mazurana said part of the problem is a persistent emphasis within aid agencies on what she described as “stranger danger” — a disproportionate focus on attacks by outsiders, when often the perpetrators are colleagues.

“The point is that as with all other assaults, the perpetrator is usually someone the victim knows. And that is being missed by the aid agencies,” she said.

“The security protocol is focused on the idea of the risk being from someone outside and that the compound is a safe space, but we are finding that that is not necessarily true, that space has to be really interrogated as a place which is quite dangerous for heterosexual women and LGBT people,” she added.

Aid workers who have been campaigning for better training, protection and recourse for women who experience sexual harassment and assault while on mission welcomed the Feinstein Center’s report.

Rosalia Gitau, a founder of the Humanitarian Women’s Network, which was set up last year by a group of female aid workers, noted the fact that women are not the only victims.

“This report sheds light on not only the challenges faced by many women aid workers but also aid workers who identify as LGBT, highlights the specific challenges facing national staff, and investigates some of the structural issues within the humanitarian and development space that create an unhealthy institutional culture,” Gitau said.

Megan Nobert founded Report the Abuse after being raped by a colleague while working for an international aid organization in South Sudan in 2015. Nobert’s NGO has been collecting information about sexual assault and harassment of aid workers through an anonymous online survey and also campaigning and offering support to survivors, as Devex reported.

She hopes the Feinstein Center’s findings will help bring about change within aid agencies and said the report’s recommendations tie in with a best practices toolkit Nobert has been developing and will publish later in the year.

“As the report highlights, more analysis needs to be done on the risk factors and how we can change organizational cultures that are contributing to sexual violence issues in the workplace,” she said, and added that “we hope the report will encourage more humanitarian organizations to reach out for assistance and guidance.”

The international community seems finally to be taking notice through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which coordinates the different U.N. agencies and NGOs working on humanitarian assistance. The committee met in Dec. 2016 to discuss the issue of sexual abuse against female aid workers, as Devex reported.

Two dedicated champions were appointed to lead an effort to reform how U.N. agencies and organizations respond to cases and also help prevent them from occurring. The IASC officially adopted a “zero tolerance” stance on discrimination, sexual harassment and abuse within all humanitarian work environments and promised to “further strengthen our prevention, accountability and protection policies and structures” in a statement released in March this year.

Mazurana said she and colleagues will be presenting their findings to the IASC and champions in Geneva at the end June.

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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.