Opinion: Sex abuse survivors are speaking up. This time, we can't let them down.

Photo by: Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

In the wake of several high-profile sexual abuse and harassment scandals, the humanitarian community finds itself at a critical crossroads. It’s not that survivors are speaking up about their experiences with sexual violence for the first time, or that humanitarian organizations are only now thinking to create safer working and living spaces for their staff. That had been happening before — slowly. The #MeToo and #AidToo campaigns have, however, greatly increased the intensity and speed of change.

Perhaps more importantly, what is not seen in the bright lights of the media and frenzy is the surge in individuals reporting the experiences they have had with sexual violence to their organizations. Many of these reports are historical, involving people who have left those organizations. That does not diminish their importance or impact.

The reporting of these historical cases marks a shift in how we begin to speak about, prevent, and respond to incidents of sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces. In the revealing of long-past incidents of sexual violence, we find ourselves needing to confront the reality that — despite today’s headlines giving this the feel of a “new” story — sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse in humanitarian spaces is far from new. In fact, it is likely as old as humanitarian action itself.

We are stepping into a space where moving forward is imperative and no longer under discussion. In doing so, though, we must be cognizant of those who have come before us, and the work that they undertook to lay the foundation of the efforts we see publically today. We are in a privileged space, one that came at the expense and cost of many humanitarians before us — in particular female humanitarians.

This acknowledgment is of particular importance to myself, having spoken publicly about my experience with sexual violence, and having founded an NGO — now closed — that was created for the sole purpose of addressing this issue. My work and any progress it may have brought was built on the foundation of people like Catherine Claxton, who fought for a settlement for sexual harassment in 1994. It was built upon the work started by the Code Blue campaign, cracking open a renewed conversation on our duty to do better as humanitarians. It was built on work like that being done quietly, within organizations, like the iSurvived network ran by Shannon Mouillesseaux at UNHCR. She has recently gone public with her own narrative on violence and trauma, showing a level of courage and strength that should awe us all. It was built upon the countless, largely nameless, humanitarians that have been working on this problem for decades.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well, which often requires time for change, growth, and the cleaning of houses.”

But as much as there is an important past to this work, there is also an important future. Right now there are innumerable humanitarians, such as myself, continuing to ensure that sexual violence is no longer an accepted or anticipated occurrence in humanitarian workplaces. Humanitarian organizations across the globe are undertaking thoughtful reflections — on their policies, their cultures, their pasts, and their futures. They are reaching out to staff members for guidance. They are investing resources to ensure the past does not repeat itself. This is not quick work, unfortunately. But perhaps it should not be. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, which often requires time for change, growth, and the cleaning of houses.

There is a personal rejoicing in the fact that survivors in the humanitarian community are reaching a stage where they no longer feel the need to hide in the shadows. They are speaking out boldly, with confidence, power, and gravity about their experiences. Requests for concrete action are being answered with policy changes, investigations, and accountability. In many ways, it feels like the dawn of the era — across the globe, and certainly within the humanitarian field.

While we push forward in making changes, there are a few important things I believe we need to bear in mind.

First, we must acknowledge the wrongdoing of the past, noting the humanitarians who were dismissed, demeaned, retaliated against, or otherwise grossly handled in their attempts to report or address sexual violence in the humanitarian community.

Second, asking survivors to come forward is only one step in the overall process; we must then listen to them, reflect on how they were misaddressed in the past, and find ways toward accountability and healing.

Third, we must strike the right balance between withholding some information in the name of confidentiality or risk management without holding back so much as to sacrifice transparency and reinforce the message that sharing information about acts of sexual violence is somehow shameful.

There is considerable work to be done, but, perhaps for the first time, it feels like there is an atmosphere of hope that we can change. It will take time, vigilance, and reflection, but I truly believe that we are heading in the right direction. At long last, we have an audience willing not just to listen but to learn as well. And it’s no coincidence that more and more survivors are willing to speak in this atmosphere.  

This time, we cannot let them down.

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About the author

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    Megan Nobert

    Megan Nobert, a Canadian legal professional and academic specialized in international criminal law and human rights, is the founder and former director of Report the Abuse, which was the first and only global NGO created to address sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.