“I’ve had sex with every interpreter I hired in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Central Europe,” an older male Nordic election observer told me with a gleeful smile the morning we met in election observation training.
He continued to brag: “Young women are crazy about me and their 14-cm heels turn me on!” This man, let’s call him Valter, reeked of alcohol and body odour as he spread his legs wide in the seat next to me. He looked me in the eye, raised his eyebrows suggestively, and said he had just come from “a wild night with local women.” I slid my chair into the aisle to distance myself.
It was September 2015, I was in Kiev, Ukraine, where the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights had invited 100 international long-term election observers for two days of training before our deployments to monitor the Ukrainian elections.
We had signed a Pledge to Accompany the Code of Conduct for Election Observer, committing us to “observe the highest level of professional conduct at all times, including leisure time.” Yet, a Nordic male colleague man-spreading next to me was already bragging about Code of Conduct violations from past missions. What should I do?
The next day we were deployed in pairs to Ukraine’s 27 regions to observe the parliamentary election campaign, voting and ballot counting. Each team hired local interpreters and drivers to help with the mission. Competition for these local-hire jobs was fierce because unemployment is rampant. The economy is in shambles, and Eastern and Southern regions suffer under Russian occupation and civil war.
It was my first OSCE-ODIHR election assignment, and I was keenly aware, being a single mother with two children to support, of just how much I too needed this employment. I hesitated to say or do anything that could jeopardize my contract or chances for future election work. Valter, while explaining to me how he preyed on young vulnerable women who also needed work, was careful to let me know he had been on over 20 election observation assignments and boasted of his close connections to his country’s foreign ministry.
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As the mission got under way, numerous cases of sexual harassment by male election observers against local and international women were reported. Despite needing the employment, quite a few brave women did come forward — in distress, afraid of their harassers and of losing their jobs. Several women said the same male perpetrators would show up in mission after mission. Some countries were more notorious than others in sending known abusers as election observers. It was surprising that OSCE-ODIHR and the national recruitment agencies had not eliminated the repeat offenders in the recruitment phase.
Working for a number of years as a gender adviser, I trained managers and staff at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the Code of Conduct, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of affected people, and sexual harassment and power abuse in the workplace. This experience helped me support the victims by drafting complaints for them. The OSCE-ODIHR election mission did not have a dedicated gender adviser in Kiev. In ODIHR’s main office, in Warsaw, Poland, there was no full-time focal point for implementation and monitoring the OSCE Code of Conduct and harassment policy guidelines.
In the fall of 2015, after receiving two reports of sexual harassment against young female staff, OSCE-ODIHR investigated and substantiated the abuse. I, personally, witnessed the harassment of a young interpreter, and the aggressor threatened me with repercussions when I said I would support her in reporting the violations. OSCE-ODIHR repatriated one man after the first election round. Valter, the Nordic man who had bragged to me of his conquests, was banned from further election assignments. Valter sued his victim for defamation and lost his case.
Abusive male election observers often “victim blamed.” They claimed local women had either fallen obsessively in love with them, or were after the men’s bank accounts. The men, as they explained it, were the victims. The international male election observers who choose to use their positions of power over vulnerable, poor women, all had this common falsehood if victims were brave enough to come forward. It was a transparent and tired old lie predatory men around the world have used for far too long.
At the end-of-mission meeting, I brought up the need for OSCE-ODIHR to stop hiring known harassers, screen all candidates thoroughly, raise awareness about a zero tolerance of power abuse and sexual harassment, and hold accountable those who commit such acts. To this end, I proposed two Code of Conduct positions in ODIHR in Warsaw that would support all election observation core teams. Seven other Nordic election observers reviewed and signed the proposal.
We shared the proposal with our respective Nordic election observer hiring agencies and ministries of foreign affairs. Despite a concrete funding offer to OSCE-ODIHR from one of the foreign ministries, the positions have not yet been set up, two years on. My interpretation is that there is a lack of interest in ensuring safe election observation work for women and enforcing gender equality and harassment policies and the Code of Conduct.
Sexual harassment in OSCE-ODIHR election observation has not stopped. In 2016, a long-term observer was repatriated after the Russian police had arrested him. He was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at his hotel. In 2017, a long-term observer sexually harassed a Kyrgyz assistant, and the same man also harassed his observer colleague. The sexual harassment was reported to the ODIHR core team. Because there is an under-reporting of sexual harassment due to stigmatisation of survivors and flawed investigation and disciplinary systems, these known cases are merely the tip of massive problems of sexual harassment and abuse of power within election observation work.
Swedish election observer Tina Lundh wrote a letter, in November 2017, to the head of ODIHR, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. Ms. Lundh referred to the new harassment cases in 2016 and 2017 and stressed the need for concrete action. Six other observers and I signed the letter, which included the 2015 proposal. Ms. Gísladóttir replied on 5 Dec., 2017, that ODIHR took the issue seriously, a new information leaflet was being produced, and an online Code of Conduct training was available. She gave no response to the 2015 proposal of creating dedicated positions, hold face-to-face training, or if ODIHR would take any further steps to ensure safe election observation for all local and international staff. Nor did Ms. Gísladóttir mention any intent to deploy a gender adviser to each election observation mission, which would have been welcomed as well.
For election observation to be truly professional and demonstrate the highest integrity, it is imperative to ensure gender equality in a workplace free from harassment. This does not happen automatically. There is funding to be found and work to be done.
Will the #MeToo movement including #AidToo make this possible?
Read more Devex coverage of sexual harassment in the aid industry.