Kate Gilmore, deputy high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, and Lindsay Coates, president of InterAction. Photos from: OHCHR and InterAction

WASHINGTON — Advocates have long said that victims of sexual violence often stay silent, fearing they will not be believed, that they could suffer personal or professional consequences, or that somehow they are to blame. Recent research has shown that women working in the humanitarian sector are no different: surveys have found that up to two-thirds of female aid workers have experienced sexual violence while working, and many of them have suffered in silence for decades.

But these victims now have a new and amplified voice. Two senior humanitarians — Kate Gilmore, deputy high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, and Lindsay Coates, president of InterAction, an alliance of more than 180 NGOs — have been appointed to head up a taskforce dedicated to overhauling the way that U.N. agencies and international NGOs deal with sexual harassment and abuse of staff. Appointed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee at the United Nations, which coordinates humanitarian action between the different agencies and NGOs, Gilmore and Coates have the title of “champions” of the cause.

Until and unless we transform those realities for women and girls in particular, all our promises around gender equality will ring hollow.

—  Kate Gilmore, deputy high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations

The working group was formed after a meeting last December when members reviewed data collected by two advocacy groups — Report the Abuse and the Humanitarian Women’s Network — in which an alarming number of women reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment or abuse while working in the sector. Surveys indicated that, in most cases, the abuse came from male colleagues — often those in senior positions, as survivors told Devex. An academic report produced by the Feinstein International Center, part of Tufts University, and published in May, supported these findings.

Most of the women who responded to these surveys did so anonymously, and most said they had not reported their experiences through official channels. But Gilmore and Coates told Devex they are determined to break the silence that surrounds sexual violence within the sector — and to force humanitarian leaders to take action.

The ‘gravest’ human rights abuse

Gilmore — head of the U.N. agency dedicated to promoting and defending human rights — described sexual violence as “the gravest human rights violation worldwide,” because of its prevalence and relative acceptance, and the fact that it “attracts the highest tolerance and the worst shame.”

In an interview with Devex, she said she is “passionate” about stopping sexual violence for these reasons — but also because, if left unchecked, it could undermine everything the humanitarian sector claims to work for. “Until and unless we transform those realities for women and girls in particular … all our promises around gender equality will ring hollow,” she said.

Drawing on her previous experience as a young social worker treating women with drug and alcohol addictions in Australia, Gilmore described how she first became aware of the link between sexual abuse and addiction.

“I started working with women who were both drug and alcohol addicts … and in their background, almost without exception, [there was] sexual and physical violence. I learned quickly that most conventional approaches to their experience completely missed that as a driver of self-destructive behavior,” she said.

The realization led Gilmore to focus much of her early work on tackling violence against women, including helping set up Australia’s first center against sexual assault at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital. Women’s rights have played a central role in her career, which has included positions as national director of Amnesty International Australia and assistant secretary-general of the world’s largest provider of family planning services, the United Nations Population Fund.

In her current role at the U.N., Gilmore has been vocal in challenging what she has described as a culture of “toxic tolerance” of sexual violence.

A civil rights issue

Coates — bringing the perspective of more than 180 American NGOs to the table through her role InterAction — is also no stranger to women’s rights. She was previously chief operating officer at Population Action International, an NGO advocating for access to family planning services.

For Coates, ending sexual violence against aid workers is fundamentally about “power imbalances and it’s about denying equality to everyone,” she said. She described this as something she encountered many times during her early career in Mississippi, where she trained and practiced as a civil rights lawyer, before serving as chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights under the Bill Clinton administration.

“Early in my law practice … I focused on employment discriminations and was particularly interested in issues affecting women … [and] what it meant to have a workplace where women were truly equal,” she said.

While the power imbalances at play when sexual violence occurs can manifest in any professional sector or setting, Coates said that in the humanitarian field, it can undermine the effectiveness of aid assistance.

“We cannot serve the populations we are trying to serve and at same time … permit mistreatment of the individuals doing the work,” she said.

A unified front

One of the champions’ first moves after coming on board at the beginning of the year was to meet with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee principals — the heads of all IASC member agencies — and secure their support for a “zero tolerance” stance on discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual abuse within all humanitarian work environments.  

This was cemented in a statement published in March in which the IASC members vowed to “strengthen our prevention, accountability and protection policies and structures,” and to “redouble” efforts to ensure staff operate within a workplace that is “free of discrimination, harassment or abuse.” The agency heads also promised to hold perpetrators to account, including pursuing criminal prosecution where appropriate, and protecting those reporting abuse from retaliation or further harm.

Coates said the statement was important since it showed there was neither “confusion” nor “controversy about whether or not this is wrong,” adding that clarity and focus are needed in order to undermine the kinds of power imbalances at play in cases of sexual abuse.

Don’t tell me people don’t know they’re doing the wrong thing because they lie about it, they hide it and they threaten anyone who breaks the silence.

— Lindsay Coates, president of InterAction

“Power gives nothing without a demand, so there will be people and forces who will think this doesn’t apply to them,” she said. “But I am very heartened by the fact the IASC has not taken that approach at all.”

Gilmore also welcomed the zero tolerance policy, saying that perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence have hiding behind excuses for too long.

“Don’t tell me people don’t know they’re doing the wrong thing because they lie about it, they hide it and they threaten anyone who breaks the silence. That for sure says people know exactly what they’re doing and they have a fair degree of confidence they will get away with it,” she said.

Ongoing advocacy work

The role of advocacy groups and survivors of abuse speaking out has been key to bringing this issue to light, and Coates and Gilmore are full of praise for the vital work done by Report the Abuse and the Humanitarian Women’s Network. “Our role is to advocate for the topic; the IASC has a full agenda so we are keeping the topic live,” Coates said.  

NGO shining a light on sexual assault of aid workers set to close

Report the Abuse, which catalyzed action against sexual violence in the aid sector, closed last month after failing to secure funding. Devex talks to founder Megan Nobert about what happened and where the campaign goes from here.

This continued pressure is more important than ever since the most active voice within the campaign — that of Megan Nobert, founder of Report the Abuse and herself a survivor of rape while on mission in South Sudan — has had to cease operations due to a lack of funding, as Devex reported.

As part of these advocacy efforts, Gilmore took part in a well-attended panel session during the U.N. Economic and Social Council Humanitarian Affairs Segment in Geneva in June, where she issued a strong rebuke to the U.N. for allowing a culture of “toxic tolerance” toward sexual violence to go unchecked.

Another early step taken by the champions has been to meet with representatives from IASC agencies to initiate what Gilmore described as a “rapid fire assessment” of existing policies, procedures and governance systems already in place within organizations to address sexual violence against staff, and to assess their effectiveness.

Points of focus include whether there are clear reporting points for victims, how many people have lost their jobs as a result of sexual violence allegations, and how organizations protect victims who come forward, Gilmore explained.

The information is still coming in, but Coates said the findings would not form the basis of yet another report: instead, the focus will be on using the assessments to identify gaps within organizations and “working with agencies to create work plans and methods to actually implement them,” she said.  

While these efforts and commitments from agencies are encouraging, both champions warned that changing behavior within humanitarian organizations could take years. “It’s a long haul,” Coates said, while Gilmore added that “it’s just the beginning.”

They stressed that the key to bringing about this change is not money, but leadership. Stamping out sexual violence against aid workers within aid organizations should not require new budget lines, according to Gilmore. “It’s not costly to tell people to do better,” she said. “Let’s be very clear … To me it’s not a cash issue; it’s a people grow up or get out [issue] and that’s not expensive to say.”

“What we need is the leadership at every level to say it consistently and apply it to themselves,” she concluded.

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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.