Q&A: UN Women's first spokesperson on sexual harassment talks necessary changes at UN

Purna Sen, U.N. Women's new executive coordinator and spokesperson on addressing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. Photo by: Ryan Brown / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — There’s a new spokesperson and coordinator on sexual harassment and assault at the United Nations.

UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka announced last month that Purna Sen, the director of the organization’s policy division, would take on a new post: Executive coordinator and spokesperson on addressing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.

Sen’s work is centered within UN Women, but she will also aim to highlight and contextualize sexual harassment and assault across the U.N., as the system continues to confront the dismissals of several high-level officials for inappropriate conduct. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS recently announced it had reopened a sexual harassment investigation of Luiz Loures, the agency’s former deputy director.

Sen talked with Devex about the role she will serve within UN Women, how she hopes to influence the broader U.N. system, and why there is a need to rethink how sexual harassment is defined, prevented, and addressed both inside and outside of the U.N.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What does your new position consist of on a day-to-day basis?

It is fairly a new role, but it covers a number of different areas. First of all, there are a variety of procedures, working groups, and reviews going on across the U.N. system to look at issues of sexual harassment. My first role is to make sure that inside UN Women we are all coordinated, in touch with each other and engaging in a consistent manner with the system.

The second part is to make sure that we bring our UN Women analysis of gender inequality and discrimination as a continuum into the U.N. system's broader processes.

The other part of the work is to ensure that we connect with the women who over the last six months, across the world, put the issue of sexual harassment on the agenda. They have really given notice to abusers, to say this is no longer tolerable. It's important we are in solidarity with them. But that also means we need to talk to member states, to other U.N. agencies, to the private sector, to a variety of players who can change the practice and cultures in which women have historically been told that they have to put up with this.

Are there certain issues related to sexual harassment at the U.N. that have appeared to you in your first few weeks, or that you are hoping to weigh in on?

We recognize that the starting point of suspicion [about victim accounts] when we talk about harassment, abuse, and assault is very dangerous and unhelpful and it is contrary to creating a culture which should enable safety and respect in the workplace. Our first step is to say to women who are speaking, “We believe you and we stand with you.”

The murky process of reporting sexual harassment at the UN
Steps have been taken to improve procedures for reporting sexual harassment and abuse at the United Nations. But major gaps still remain, experts tell Devex.

Second, we are invested in improved procedures and mechanisms by which reports can be made and addressed. But we also see those procedural issues as an expression of a culture in which women's voices are not given credibility.

What is your sense of what it is like considering reporting sexual harassment or assault at the U.N., and following through on claims? 

It is tricky to know where to go to report, how to do it, who to speak to. It is not obvious. I do acknowledge the U.N. system has made efforts to make the reporting mechanisms better known and understood. That is one important step, but the issue of reporting is not simply a matter of knowing where to go. It's a question of having trust in those processes and systems.

If victims do not feel there is any purpose to reporting, they clearly won't. If they think they're going to be humiliated, there could be retaliation, then why will they bother? This is a management issue. The question is, how do you create a workspace where there is respect, that delivers equality.

Can you describe if, and how your role positions you as focal point for people to report specific harassment or abuse? 

I have a special email account [end.sexualharassment@UNWomen.org] if anybody inside the U.N. wants to share experiences.

“I have no reporting or investigation mandate or authority, but I am acutely aware that there is an inadequate recognition both of the prevalence and the harm of sexual harassment.”

— Purna Sen, executive coordinator and spokesperson on addressing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination at UN Women

I have no reporting or investigation mandate or authority, but I am acutely aware that there is an inadequate recognition both of the prevalence and the harm of sexual harassment. When women share their accounts with me, I want to anonymize them and use them to help in our campaigning and advocacy work to raise awareness of what the real extent and nature of the problem is.

Are you hoping to encourage other U.N. agencies to create a similar post to yours, or is the idea for UN Women to step up into a more visible role discussing sexual harassment?

What we want is to ensure that the system as a whole understands the issues of inequality and discrimination. But we do not have a monopoly on that understanding. We will connect with and support other parts of the U.N. We would hope to see this process currently underway at the chief executive board, and any new procedures, definitions, and framings, adequately understand the context in which sexual harassment and assault is made possible. Because if they don't, we are not going to address the problem.

Another thing we want to do is to ensure that sexual harassment is not seen as an isolated area of abuse or violence, but is one that connects to a broader system of expressions of gender-based violence.

For UN Women itself, is there any talk about changes to reform its own system for reporting harassment and assault?

Our procedures are very much shaped by the U.N. system regulations as a whole, and our investigations are outsourced to the Office of Internal Oversight Services [housed within the U.N. Secretariat]. It's important we have an eye to whether that is working and what needs to be done. At the moment, not many people in the system have the sense that it works for those who complain, not just those who call on management to protect them. That balance is a little bit out of kilter.

I don't think it is a quick fix, because we do not own OIOS, but I do think OIOS has an increasing awareness of where the shortcomings have been, and the need to have more investigators who understand these issues. I think also consulting expert staff outside the U.N. is critical to that improvement of procedures.

Is any sort of outside consultation done at this point?

It's not there at the moment. We are strongly pressing for that to happen and we will certainly be including that in our work, in a couple of months’ time. What we will do is convene a group of experts who have worked on this — lawyers, activists, staff who have been through unsatisfactory procedures — to say, “let's gather together and look at where we've got to as a system, what would you want to see change, how the system can be improved, where we can learn from elsewhere,” and to link that back to a bigger discussion.

I have heard that the issue of reporting to people who may be in some position of authority to you, or other colleagues you are connected to, has been identified as the problem that people have with the present system. Is that an issue you have seen?

Absolutely. Especially in offices outside head offices, which are often quite small and where you can easily be identified, or you continue to sit opposite that person who you have accused of abusing you. But those are very, very tricky situations to manage, and until we come to grips with how that can be improved, it's not really going to work. It's not going to work to deliver safe and respectful workspaces, which the U.N. clearly must have a commitment to.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.