Oxfam chief addresses sexual harassment claims

Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. Photo by: Stephen Jaffe / IMF / CC BY-NC-ND

PARIS — Executive Director of Oxfam International Winnie Byanyima told Devex that sexual harassment and other allegations against seven male Oxfam managers recently published by the Times newspaper are both a sign that the charity’s efforts to encourage reporting are working, as well as a wake-up call.

According to the British newspaper, the senior Oxfam officials — who had been working as country directors in Africa, Asia, and Latin America — were investigated over the past year in relation to “safeguarding allegations,” including sexual harassment. The charity’s own figures show that it handled 87 allegations of sexual exploitation by staff in 2016 and 2017, up from 26 cases in 2014.

“We have a very strong safeguarding policy, and in fact the number of reported cases has increased as a result of stronger policy and stronger enforcement, so we see that this is in part a result of moving in the right direction,” Byanyima told Devex on the sidelines of the Development Assistance Committee’s high-level meetings at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

But the NGO leader added: “We are not where we should be, and we are working harder on training our people, setting the system to work, [and] making it safe for people to report.”

“Yes, the system is now working and it’s also now showing us that we are far from where we should be,” she said.

Among the claims reported by the Times is the case of Lesley Agams, who was Oxfam Nigeria’s country director before being dismissed in 2010, three months after she accused a senior manager of sexually assaulting her at a hotel during an Oxfam conference in Oxford, United Kingdom.

Byanyima said the case was “thoroughly investigated by Oxfam [Great Britain], but despite our best efforts we couldn’t uncover enough evidence to substantiate them,” she said.

She added that three of the other country directors mentioned in the Times piece “have already left the organization, not necessarily because of the allegations, but over other issues.”

The Charity Commission — the U.K.’s charity regulator — said it had been in touch with Oxfam to ensure that the allegations are being handled properly. According to the charity, of the 87 cases it received over the past year, 53 were reported to the police, 33 were investigated internally, and one case remains pending.

“Sexual abuse and exploitation is a serious problem in society. We know that we have to get better at preventing it and dealing with it when it happens, and we have to walk the walk,” Byanyima said. “We fight for women’s rights and we must protect the women who work for us.”

She added that, due to recent restructuring within the organization, all country managers now report directly to Byanyima and her team.

“My senior team has now done training on safeguarding so that we know what our responsibility is, and we have a program to take it down to all the teams under my line management,” she said.

In public statements following the Times story, the charity also pointed out that it has a confidential whistle-blowing helpline, a dedicated safeguarding team, and safeguarding contacts within countries.

Byanyima said she welcomes the fact “that more women feel safe enough to out it, to refuse to accept it, and that is a sign that across the society, it is becoming less acceptable to abuse women, and I think that’s positive.”

“It almost makes me want to cry when I think about it, because literally every working woman of my age went through this somehow, had an experience of that kind.”

Regardless of progress, however, Byanyima said “we can’t get comfortable, we have to understand that it is still a world where abuse is happening all the time, and we must make it unacceptable in all institutions. It’s my top priority and my team’s top priority.”

A spokesperson for the U.K. Department for International Development said the donor has a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual misconduct.

“We expect our partners to have robust systems and processes in place to prevent such behavior,” the spokesperson said.

“Oxfam have informed us that they are investigating these allegations and we expect this to be carried out as a matter of urgency and in full compliance with the Charity Commission.”

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.