Sexual violence against female aid workers: How organizations can tackle it

A female aid worker speaks with Eritrean and South Sudanese refugees. Photo by: Anouk Delafortrie / EU / ECHO / CC BY-ND

A female aid worker who was raped while working in South Sudan is using her experience to help humanitarian organizations get better at preventing staff from experiencing sexual violence and harassment while at work.

Megan Nobert was drugged and sexually assaulted by a colleague while working as a protection and gender-based violence officer for an international NGO in South Sudan in 2015. She blacked out after being drugged by her attacker, who worked for a United Nations sub-contractor at the time, and woke up the next morning terrified and knowing something was very wrong.

What followed were tests and courses of drugs to make sure she was free from sexually transmitted infections and HIV, and then a series of what she describes as humiliating and traumatizing questions from her employer and various U.N. agencies, which ultimately led to no action.

Nobert was shocked and disappointed by the lack of empathy shown by her superiors and peers, and the fact there seemed to be no clear guidelines or protocol being followed in responding to her case. So she took matters into her own hands and started her own NGO, Report the Abuse. One of the site’s initial functions was to assess the scale of the problem and Nobert developed an anonymous online survey asking aid workers whether they had experienced anything similar to her own ordeal.

“After I went public about my attack I was immediately inundated with emails from hundreds of survivors with similar stories to my own, people who felt alone and depressed and many who had been fired by their organizations for speaking out,” Nobert said.

“This outpouring also gave clear feedback that no one knew who to turn to or how to address the problem, and inspired me to start Report the Abuse,” she added.

The survey and website were originally intended to provide a safe space for fellow victims to come forward and tell their story, Nobert said. So far, more than 800 people have responded to the survey, with 65 percent reporting they have suffered sexual violence while working as a humanitarian or development worker. Five percent of those allege they were raped, while 23 percent say they experienced unwanted sexual touching. While this by no means offers a complete picture, it clearly indicates sexual harassment and violence is widespread across the humanitarian sector, Nobert said.

Report the Abuse also offers a database of resources for victims to help link them to therapists or lawyers and Nobert is often approached by survivors personally, and helps refer them to appropriate complaints measures or psychosocial services.

Nobert is also working to help organizations themselves, by developing the first set of best practices on the issue. This will start with the publication of an initial toolkit later this month, which is designed to help NGOs and other relevant groups think through how to prepare staff before deployment about the risks of sexual harassment and violence, and how to respond as an organization if it does happen.

Nobert is now not alone in her fight to highlight sexual discrimination and violence in the aid sector. In January 2016, another group of female aid workers set up the Humanitarian Women’s Network and issued their own online survey to women working in the field. Their findings chimed with Nobert’s, with 4 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed saying they had been raped while carrying out humanitarian work, and approximately half saying they had experienced “unwanted touching” or sexual advances from male colleagues

Nobert’s and HWN’s cause has since been taken up by the Philippe Lazzarini, the U.N’s deputy special coordinator for Lebanon, who shared their findings, along with a number of recommendations, to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which is led by the United Nations and acts as the central forum for the coordination of humanitarian assistance between different agencies, and NGOs. The recommendations were discussed by the panel in December and Nobert said two co-champions have already been named to take up the cause and that she is in contact with them to help the IASC put measures in place to address the problem.

Devex spoke to Nobert about her experience and her mission to use it, and the stories of others she is collecting to catalyze change within the sector. She also outlined four steps aid organizations can take to reduce cases of sexual harassment and abuse against their staff. Here are the highlights of the conversation.

What has the survey revealed about sexual harassment and violence against aid workers?

I don’t know a single woman in the field who doesn’t have at least one story of sexual harassment. There seems to be an expectation within the industry that as women our bodies are free, open and available and that being harassed is just part of the humanitarian experience. This message is being delivered by senior management, which includes women. The information we’ve collected is just what I’m hearing from expatriate staff. We are just starting to tap into what national staff are experiencing and that will be a strong focus for us in the next few years.

More specifically, the survey data and the testimonials that have been shared on the site highlight a number of common and very worrying themes. Respondents report a lot of rape blaming; of being asked “why didn’t you report the assault to a member staff straight away”, or “why didn’t you fight back?” According to one testimonial on the site, a young woman who was experiencing sexual harassment at the hands of someone from a partner organization was told by her own organization that she should use the sexual harassment as a bargaining chip in order to get something out of the partner.

Retaliation from employers is another common reaction. I’ve read testimonials from survivors who say they were fired after coming forward to report some kind of sexual harassment, and others who were given bad performance reviews after speaking up.

What is the current capacity within humanitarian organizations to deal with sexual harassment and violence against their employees?

Only 16 percent of the 92 organizations we surveyed last year mentioned sexual violence against their own employees in their internal response strategies, policies and procedures. This was the main finding of a one year study Report the Abuse conducted looking at the documentation of 92 different U.N. Agencies and INGOs.

I continue to see this gap, and often ask NGOs: “If one of your employees was sexually assaulted in a remote village in Africa tomorrow, do you know what you would do?” Most of them have no idea.

When you don’t know how to respond it leaves a lot of room for situations to be handled in ways which are traumatizing for the survivor. Furthermore, it can become easy for managers to dismiss cases or become hostile to survivors because their first reaction may be to panic without guidelines or structures. Often there are power dynamics at play in these situations, where the perpetrator is in a position of power and so they control the narrative. That way it becomes easier to get rid of a survivor than a perpetrator.

Responding appropriately to sexual assault is about more than following a policy or code of conduct, and it can’t be taught in one hostile environment awareness training (HEAT) session once a year. Organizations need to think about it holistically. Yes they need a policy on paper, but it needs to be backed up through repeated messaging, action, and creating office environments within which sexual harassment and discrimination do not exist. There needs to be a culture of accountability.

Who is accountable when cases occur?

In my situation, the perpetrator didn’t have authority over me, but because he was a contractor for a powerful U.N. agency, that agency was able to control the narrative and cut off any attempts I had to get an investigation carried out on the ground.

At the same time, my own organization had no procedures in place and no capacity to deal with my case, and since I was working on a local contract, they had a significantly reduced duty of care for me. Equally, the U.N. agency had no contractual responsibility for the actions of the staff of its subcontractors.

Duty of care is a really grey area when it comes to humanitarian law. One of the questions I’m asking right now is how can we strengthen and lift the fog on the duty of care issue so that survivors are able to get care from their organizations. The issue has finally started to get the attention it deserves thanks in part to the Steve Dennis case. He was an aid worker who was kidnapped while working at a refugee camp in Dadaab. He was shot in the leg and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and brought a case against his employer, the Norwegian Refugee Council, for gross negligence and failing in its duty of care. One of Dennis’ complaints was that the NRC’s follow-up and investigation into the case was unsatisfactory, but also he wasn’t being given anything to cover his medical and psychological bills.

This is true of the humanitarian sector in general where most organizations cut off after-care support soon after staff come back from the field. At most, someone might get three months of after-care coverage, which organizations seem to assume is enough time to sort out whatever bugs and parasites are still floating around in your system and maybe a couple of sessions with a psychiatrist. I’ve worked for organizations that literally cut off care the day your contract ends.

If you’ve suffered a critical event then this isn’t nearly enough, not even three months is enough. In my case I had to take post-exposure prophylaxis medication, which requires you to take an HIV test every three months for a year. This wasn’t covered by any of my medical coverage. I’m from Canada, where I can return for short periods of time to get free healthcare, but that’s certainly not the case in many other countries or for many other survivors.

What should organizations be doing?

Right now most organizations don’t know how to handle cases of sexual violence and harassment. But things are changing and increasingly NGOs are approaching Report the Abuse asking for advice on how to handle the issue. This is fantastic, and it’s opening the door to addressing the issue.

Here are some broad pieces of advice I can give:

1. For starters, most organizations currently don’t have a policy on sexual harassment and violence, so developing one is a good first step. When doing so though, they need to make sure that the policies are clear, understandable and written for the employee. I’m a lawyer and I’ve read policies which are so complicated and convoluted I couldn’t understand them. A cynic could conclude such a policy is designed to ensure no one ever files a complaint.

2. Organizations need to talk more and openly about sexual harassment and violence, and in clear terms. Where I’ve seen policies there is often confusion around the definitions of what is or isn’t harassment, for example. Organizations also need to talk about cultural relativism. While one person may think it’s OK to give a colleague a shoulder rub when they’ve done a good job, it might make someone else uncomfortable.

3. Organizations need to change the angle of the narrative when talking about sexual harassment and violence. We need to move away from saying things like “don’t go out at night” or “don’t wear short skirts,” to open discussions and action where necessary which reinforce good conduct. We need to get people thinking about the impact of their behavior on others, and focus on reducing perpetration, not how women or men can protect themselves from sexual violence.

4. Country-specific strategies need to be developed and put in place so field level offices can react appropriately when a case is brought to them. A survivor in Bangkok may need different treatment than one in South Sudan for example, and country staff need to be able to adapt for what each survivor needs. Taking the morning after pill, getting access to post-exposure prophylaxis medication, getting out of the country and into therapy — these may all be good strategies for an expatriate member of staff, but they may not necessarily be appropriate for national staff in a country where the morning after pill could be forbidden.

What is Report the Abuse doing to help organizations?

We will be releasing the first draft of a toolkit in late January that provides case study examples and offers guidance to organizations about how they can address the situations which come up. The purpose is to make organizations start thinking about how they can respond, and what gaps exist in their current capacity.

Questions they need to ask will include, how will the organization handle a situation where someone in a senior management position is the problem — can complaints bypass them? How many people need to be aware of an incident of sexual violence, and how is information about the incident communicated to make sure the safety and privacy of the survivor are not compromised? Does security have a specific evacuation plan in place to remove survivors of sexual violence? What capacity does an organization have for conducting inquiries into the behavior of their staff? These, and many more, are things that organizations need to start asking themselves.

I have a long vision for Report the Abuse, because that is what you need to address something like sexual violence. We are not going to change the situation over night, not even in a few years, but with sustained action, advocacy, solutions and cooperation from organizations, we can help to make humanitarian and development workplaces safe from sexual violence.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. 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.