Sexual assault and harassment in the aid sector: Survivor stories

By Sophie Edwards 07 February 2017

Four female aid workers spoke to Devex about their experiences of sexual harassment, violence and even rape while working on projects abroad. Photo by: Tim Foster

Aid agencies and international nongovernmental organizations are slowly beginning to recognize that sexual harassment, discrimination and assault against female aid workers is a serious problem within the industry — and that perpetrators are often men holding senior positions.

Two advocacy groups formed in the past 18 months by women working in the sector — the Humanitarian Women’s Network and Report the Abuse — have lifted the lid on the problem, collecting survey data from hundreds of female aid workers. The results reveal that sexual harassment, unwanted touching, sexual comments and, in some cases, rape, are a common experience for women working in remote and dangerous humanitarian settings.

More than 800 women responded to the Report the Abuse survey; 67 percent said they had suffered sexual violence while on the job, including 10 percent who said they had been raped and 21 percent who said they had experienced unwanted sexual touching. Similarly, the Humanitarian Women’s Network survey — which received responses from more than 1,000 people working for 70 organizations — found that 4 percent of female aid workers said they have been raped while carrying out humanitarian work. A further 48 percent reported “unwanted touching” and 55 percent reported that they have experienced sexual advances from male colleagues during their professional careers.

The Feinstein International Center, part of Tufts University, has also been investigating the issue and is set to release its report, Sexual Assault Against Humanitarian and Development Aid Workers, later this month.

Senior executives in the sector are finally taking notice. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which coordinates the different U.N. agencies and NGOs working on humanitarian assistance, met in December to discuss the issue. It has appointed two dedicated champions to lead an effort to reform how organizations respond to cases of sexual assault, but also to work to prevent them from occurring.

However, Dyan Mazurana, who led the Tufts report, believes it will take a huge culture shift within the sector to achieve meaningful change. She also told Devex that more in-depth research is needed since the current surveys have only “scratched the surface” and have focused on interviewing international humanitarian aid workers and not national staff. Mazurana said she expects levels of sexual harassment and abuse to be higher among women working in national offices.

As part of its ongoing coverage of this important issue, Devex interviewed four women who say they experienced sexual harassment or assault while working on aid projects abroad. We have changed their names: all four wished to remain anonymous for professional reasons, but were willing to tell their stories in the hope that it can bring about change. Their accounts share many similarities and highlight a number of fundamental problems within the humanitarian sector.  

1. “A cowboy culture.”

Sarah was tied up, sexually assaulted and suffocated with ether in her hotel room in Sri Lanka by a gang of local men in 2009 while working for a major U.N. agency. While she does not hold her agency accountable for what happened, she said she was “astounded” by their suggestion that she should go to the beach for a few days and then go back to work.

“I don’t fault them for it happening to me but they do have a responsibility to protect and look after their staff and that was lacking,” she said. “It’s this cowboy mentality, the idea that you’re supposed to just carry on because these kinds of things are part of the nature of the work.”  

Another victim, Alison, said her own experience of being drugged and raped by a taxi driver while working in Peru revealed a certain “lawlessness” within the sector.

“People get out into the field, whether they are expats or locals, and they get promoted to positions of authority and have money. There’s a sense they are out there on the range and there’re no sheriff in town and they can get away with anything,” she said.  

This was echoed by another survivor, Katy, who said that both the man with whom she was pressured into having sex and another who tried to bribe her into it, used their positions of power — and the fact that they were on a mission away from headquarters — to “get away with” whatever they wanted.

“They are only there for a short time and they’re confident you’re not going to report them because you only have access to more junior staff,” she said.

This “cowboy” culture within the humanitarian sector, especially on operations in conflict settings, is exacerbated by the fact that men occupy most senior field positions, according to Mazurana. In more dangerous settings, the cluster leads tend to be men. They frequently have a “buck up” attitude toward women who complain about sexual assault or inappropriate behavior, telling them they should expect such things where “law and order have broken down,” she said, directly quoting one of the aid agency security officers her team interviewed for their research paper.

“Managers need to show zero tolerance toward sexist or homophobic comments and attitudes to create a better work environment,” she said.

Jenny experienced this firsthand when she was working for a USAID contractor in Afghanistan. She was the only woman in the compound and although initially she felt like “one of the boys,” this turned sour after she was attacked by an Afghan national while attending a work event. She managed to escape from what could have turned into rape only to find her colleagues unsupportive as she struggled to come to terms with what had happened.

“They made me feel like I was an embarrassment, some kind of loser. I felt like they didn’t know how to deal with a woman going through an emotional time — I was seen as a threat and they were turned off by me,” she said.

2. Power dynamics.

Report the Abuse’s findings revealed that in 44 percent of self-reported cases of abuse or harassment, the perpetrators were men working in the aid industry itself, often occupying senior roles. This helps to explain why so few women report their abuse through official channels.

“Many of the cases being reported to us include abuse of power — a boss harassing or sexually violating their employees, expatriates committing sexual violence against national staff, donors sexually harassing funding staff,” said Megan Nobert, who was prompted to found Report the Abuse after she was raped while working for an international NGO in South Sudan.

“If the survivor is in a lower [position] of power, they have less control of the situation, less voice. The accused, if they have more power, can better control the narrative. This logically results in situations where survivors will either be afraid to report — for fear of retaliation or not being believed — or the creation of a hostile situation if they do report,” she added.

As a young woman trying to break into the sector, turning down the advances of a mentor and boss — someone who holds your future career in their hands — can seem impossible, according to Katy, whose married boss propositioned her while they were working together in Iraq.  

“When you’re in a conflict scenario and your boss is hitting on you, who are you going to tell and how are you going to get out when maybe you need a special flight or a boat to leave, plus your boss is the one who gives you permission to go on leave. If that person wants to have sex with you then it puts you in a very difficult position and I didn’t see any option other than compliance,” she said.

Seven years later, while working on an emergency response in south Asia, Katy found herself in a similar situation. Working as a contractor at the time, she was offered a lucrative staff position in exchange for sex by a high-level U.N. official during a conversation in a hotel bar. When she rejected his advance, he became physically and verbally aggressive, before walking out of the bar.

Katy’s boss advised her to report the encounter, saying she had heard similar and worse stories about the man. But when she went to lodge an official complaint, she was told to drop it by the resident stress counselor since any report would cross the desk of the man she was accusing.

“I just tried to put it behind me and get on with the job but I constantly had the feeling I wasn’t safe on missions and it added a lot of stress to the job. Organizations have got all these policies but you feel they’re only good on paper, they’re not there to protect you. And there’s this network of people protecting each other at that senior level,” she said.

3. Aid organizations don’t know how to handle reports of sexual harassment and assault, and fail to recognize the impact on victims.

While some of the victims Devex spoke to said they felt their superiors deliberately mishandled or silenced their complaints, others said that their organizations simply didn’t know how to respond. This is backed up by Mazurana’s research, which found few organizations had “robust” procedures in place detailing how to respond to a case of sexual harassment or assault against field staff. In contrast, kidnapping is something most organizations are prepared for, Mazurana said. “It’s not because kidnapping happens a lot, it’s because it paralyzes the agency when it happens, and so organizations give it priority over sexual assault,” she said.

Sarah’s first conversation with her employer after being assaulted in her hotel room in Sri Lanka revealed that the organization had no clear procedures in place, she said.

“I called the emergency line and the person was very compassionate but the first question she asked me was what had I been wearing and had I been drinking,” she said.  

Terrified of being attacked again, Sarah begged the agency to send someone from Colombo, approximately a three-hour drive away from where she was staying in Galle, to be with her. The woman on the line told her she “didn’t know the protocol” and could not send anyone until the morning. “I sat in that hotel room rocking and watching the windows to see if someone was coming for seven hours straight,” Sarah recalled.

When she saw the U.N. car pull up in the morning, Sarah was disappointed to see her U.N. agency had only sent a driver — “I assumed they would send someone, a woman perhaps, to help me through it but they just sent the driver,” she said.  

After a day spent being examined by two male doctors — which she described as “incredibly invasive and distressing” — followed by a psychiatrist and then going to the police station where she was asked to sign paperwork without a translator, Sarah was told by the agency that she needed to stay a second night in Galle.

“At first I thought I could do it, but then I was at the hotel and it started to get dark and I realized there was no way I could stay another night,” she said. Sarah asked the driver to take her to a friend’s house in Colombo.

It took the agency a week to fly Sarah home and even getting them to agree to that was a struggle. “Originally they said they were going to send me to their office in Bangkok but I told them absolutely not, I wanted to go home to my family where I felt safe,” she said.

4. Professional blowback for reporting assault and harassment.

Despite receiving consistently positive feedback on her performance, Jenny was given her demobilization notice three months earlier than expected and was the only member of expat staff to be “laid off” the project in Afghanistan. She is convinced she was fired because she refused to keep quiet about her attack.

“I was mugged once before while working in a different country and people were kind to me, but after this everyone treated me like a massive loser and that my attack was something to be ashamed of,” she said.  

Jenny said she left the job without receiving a performance review, something she was eager to have on file to help her secure her next position. But her attempts to follow up with her former boss and colleagues were met with silence. She later found out from three colleagues that they had been told not to speak to her, she said.

Alison, who was raped by a taxi driver while working for an NGO in Peru, said her organization tried to “get rid” of her and “brush it under the carpet.” The aid worker, who was in a senior role at the organization at the time of her attack in 2014, found herself out of a job and on a flight back to the U.S. less than a year after being assaulted.

“I should have taken medical leave after it happened but I didn’t feel like I was given the opportunity, I had so much work and I was worried about my job. I felt like I was expected to just carry on and so I tried to pretend like nothing had happened but I couldn’t do it,” she said.

In the months that followed, Alison said she became reclusive and depressed, experienced panic attacks, and would often sleep at her desk because she was too afraid to be alone in her apartment. Unsurprisingly her performance at work went downhill, she said. She was told the company would not be renewing her contract  which she reluctantly accepted. But what upset her most was how quickly they made her leave.

“The straw that broke the camel's back was being told I had to be packed up and out within a week when I had initially been told that I had six months to make the transition. I had a house, cats and a dog, people who depended on me, I couldn’t just pack up and leave. Also, I had nowhere to go,” she said.

5. Few options for victims to seek legal redress and compensation.

All of the women who spoke to Devex described how powerless they felt in terms of bringing their abuser to justice, seeking compensation from their organization for unfair dismissal or unpaid medical bills, or even simply getting support and acknowledgment from their employer for what had happened.

It took six years for Sarah to receive a response from the U.N. agency regarding her request for payment of all related medical expenses after she developed posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of her ordeal. The agency argued they weren’t liable because Sarah had been on rest and recovery leave at the time of her attack.

Jenny is still fighting her organization and seeking lost wages and reimbursement for counseling, inspired by the Steve Dennis case — an aid worker who was kidnapped while working at a refugee camp in Dadaab and successfully sued his employer, the Norwegian Refugee Council, for gross negligence and failing in its duty of care.

For consultants, ”you don’t have much of a safety net,” according to Katy, who spent most of her career as a contractor. Those working on contracts lose medical coverage shortly after their assignment ends. She is now back in her home country “repairing.” Having been twice propositioned and put under pressure by senior colleagues, she says that — as much as she loved emergency relief work — she can no longer go through the “stress of keeping everyone happy and compromising your ethics and integrity so you can get another contract.”

Alison said she sought legal advice after being fired. Her lawyer told her that although she had a case, it would “take years” to get through the courts.

“There are myriad barriers for survivors not only [in] receiving some form of justice, but also the support that they may need to heal from their experiences,” Nobert, of Report the Abuse, said. Nonexistent or unresponsive complaint systems, the lack of functioning or appropriate legal systems, and contract issues that result in loss of medical support if one leaves their organization, are just a few examples of such barriers.

While many of these are difficult to address, she said, they are not insurmountable. Humanitarian organizations should respond by putting in place their own robust complaint and investigative systems. “The key is having humanitarian organizations committed to creating safe workplaces for their employees,” Nobert added.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

Edwards sopie
Sophie Edwards

Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. 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.


Join the Discussion