'They did nothing to protect me': A survivor questions IFRC's zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment

For Nabila Nasir, IFRC’s response to sexual harassment investigations “is not a survivor-centered approach.” Photo: Nabila Nasir

When Nabila Nasir moved from Kuala Lumpur to Nairobi for a three-month role as head of partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, she believed she could show her leadership potential.

Instead, she was sexually harassed.

In mid-2019, Nasir — an experienced development professional — had spent two years in Malaysia as IFRC’s regional partnerships coordinator. Once she was in Nairobi, unwanted sexual advances from another IFRC employee began. This was followed by persistent messaging that led to Nasir reporting the harassment.

After her complaint, Nasir said the opaque follow-up process and continued exposure to the perpetrator left her feeling unsafe.

IFRC said it has a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and that it took swift and appropriate action in this case. But despite an official investigation substantiating her report in May 2020, Nasir wasn't told what actions were taken against her perpetrator — leaving her disillusioned about a future with IFRC.

“They did nothing to protect me,” Nasir told Devex. “This is not a survivor-centered approach. With the way they responded I felt like I was being told to shut up — that this is part of my code of conduct to keep the inner workings of an IO [international organization] secret. For a while I toed the line, and it took me a while for me to decide to speak publicly about my experience.”

“Effectively, we have a company that, on the face of it, doesn’t support reporting, and is not providing a safe workplace for employees. In short, a damaged brand.”

— David Wells, associate professor, Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine

Having left the organization, Nasir is determined to see changes in how the sector responds to allegations, which she says often leaves victims vulnerable.

“If I am silent, I am complicit.”

Nasir’s story

“I saw this role as a potential stepping stone,” Nasir told Devex. “You can’t tell what a person will be like in a position just on paper, so this was an opportunity to prove myself.”

Before arriving in Nairobi in July 2019, Nasir had encountered the man who became her perpetrator in February with cordial interaction online. In the Red Cross, Nasir explained, it is common to add people on Facebook, whether you have met them or not. The conversation provided “zero red flags.”

A woman reports sexual harassment. Her contract is ended 10 days later.

Humanitarian group Medair said it could not protect the woman from further harassment, so it sent her home.

After meeting in person in Nairobi, their friendship continued. One evening, on advice from the IFRC Nairobi office that women should not travel alone in the city, Nasir joined him in seeing a blockbuster movie she had anxiously been waiting for. That is when the unwanted advances began. But Nasir believed the evening ended with her making it clear she just wanted to be friends.

When they returned to the office, the advances turned into harassment — with the perpetrator sending text messages and even coming into Nasir’s office to tell her how beautiful she was. It continued for more than a week.

“I said ‘No’ in each and every way,” Nasir recalled. “I said ‘No’ in a nice way, in a neutral way, in a not so neutral way, in a rude way, in an aggressive way. But it was like [he thought] I was just saying ‘Try again.’”

After speaking to the head of finance, Nasir was told the man’s behavior was against the code of conduct and it needed to be reported to her manager. HR in Geneva were called, and Nasir was asked to submit a written report. The procedure was explained to Nasir and she was asked to “trust the system.”

Nasir was warned that the investigation process would be hard and asked if she wanted to proceed. Despite Nasir being told by HR and Nairobi management that the man was warned not to retaliate against her after she decided to proceed with the complaint, she found herself on the receiving end of comments from other staff that made her believe they were retaliating on his behalf. Nasir said there were rumors of her having affairs with other staff.

“I said ‘No’ in each and every way. I said ‘No’ in a nice way, in a neutral way, in a not so neutral way, in a rude way, in an aggressive way. But it was like [he thought] I was just saying ‘Try again.’”

—  Nabila Nasir, former IFRC staff

“I told HR in Geneva, and I told HR in Nairobi, but they told me just to ignore it,” Nasir explained in tears. To make matters worse, she remained likely to run into him in the Nairobi office in between their travel schedules.

An open Excel document was sent to everyone in the office with travel information — exposing times Nasir would be at the airport alone. “I was so scared. He was on a flight 45 minutes before mine, which means we would be in the airport at the same time.” She arranged to be upgraded to business class at her own expense, allowing her to access the airport through a separate entrance. “I didn’t know what he would do, but I didn’t feel safe.” Despite complaining about this process and the risk it posed, personal flight details were exposed two times more.

The issue was confirmed by IFRC in a legal letter to Nasir and seen by Devex. “The IFRC regrets that the local administration practice may have caused a sense of insecurity for your client and agrees that this is a valid data protection issue,” the organization wrote in the letter.

“However, given the confidential nature of the investigation and disciplinary process, the administration department in Nairobi had no knowledge of the case so had no reason ... to preclude the sharing of her travel information.” It is an issue they said they would be looking to change.

Back in the office, Nasir felt constantly anxious as she believed she continued to be the victim of rumors. But she persisted with her position until the end of the contract. One week before she was set to go on leave to spend time with her partner, Nasir said the perpetrator was finally put on administrative leave.

Investigating the complaint

In late November 2019, Nasir was contacted by an investigator in relation to her complaint — three months after it was initially lodged. She was contacted again in December with follow-up questions.

As of February 2020, the investigator's report had been concluded. And in emails seen by Devex, Nasir was contacted by HR in Geneva asking for the names of other women who may have also been victims of the perpetrator to assist in determining action. This was after telling investigators she may not have been the sole victim based on discussions with other women in the Nairobi office. In response, Nasir said she was not willing to provide the names of women who would not themselves come forward.

In May 2020 — nine months after lodging her complaint — Nasir was told her allegations had been substantiated and disciplinary measures were imposed. No information was provided on these measures, but in speaking to colleagues Nasir said she was informed the perpetrator had returned to his role. Devex can confirm public documents show he was still in that position as of October 2020, but soon after, his contract was not renewed.

A request by Nasir to access the report, so she could understand what was investigated and how IFRC determined the disciplinary action, was refused. The organization told Nasir it hoped she could find “some comfort in the fact that the allegations were substantiated and that a disciplinary measure was imposed.”

But Nasir told Devex she did not feel comfortable, and wanted IFRC to take responsibility for what she has suffered and how its systems enable other victims to suffer — especially those that are not as strong-willed as she is.

IFRC’s response

The nine months between Nasir's official harassment complaint and being informed of the final outcome, the failure to keep her protected from the perpetrator during the investigation, and lack of insight into the outcome of the investigation have all made her raise questions about whether the organization’s approach was truly survivor-centric.

According to IFRC documentation, its survivor-centric approach should create a “supportive environment in which the survivor’s rights and wishes are respected, their safety is ensured and they are treated with dignity and respect.” This approach is defined by four guiding principles: safety, confidentiality, respect, and non-discrimination.

In legal documents sent to IFRC, Nasir raised concerns and explained that she wanted an apology and acknowledgement of its flawed response.

David Wells, associate professor with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, was previously part of a team of experts reviewing responses to sexual misconduct by member organizations of the Australian Council for International Development. Based on the evidence presented by Nasir, he said IFRC’s handling of the case was “almost a textbook case of how not to do it.”

“It’s a sort of case that you would use as a teaching example, and set students with the task to analyze what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what could be done better,” he said.

According to Wells, the response from IFRC was over-legalized, with official responses to Nasir showing their response was by the book. “The only people who have dictated this have been the lawyers, and they think they have got the organization out and everything is back to normal.”

Beyond the impact on Nasir, Wells said the poor response has a wider organizational impact, with immediate colleagues of Nasir, who are likely to be “well aware” of what has happened, seeing the perpetrator simply get a “smack on the wrist.” This means they are unlikely to be forthcoming with information on what they perceive as “entrenched behavior” by the perpetrator or others within the organization — despite Wells saying there being a high likelihood of the behavior repeating over time.

“Effectively, we have a company that, on the face of it, doesn’t support reporting, and is not providing a safe workplace for employees,” he said. “In short, a damaged brand.”

Asked about the concerns by Devex, IFRC said it responded in line with established regulations.

“The IFRC does not tolerate harassment of any form,” said Matt Cochrane, IFRC spokesperson. “We are committed to taking swift action when allegations are raised, taking appropriate steps to remedy the situation, and sanctioning those found to have engaged in misconduct.”

Cochrane said IFRC encourages staff and others who engage with the organization to raise concerns through Safecall, a United Kingdom-based service offering a whistleblower hotline to organizations, or to contact IFRC’s Office of Internal Audit and Investigation directly.

“Our message to anyone with a complaint or concern is simple: We will listen to you, we will support you, and we will take action,” he said.

In response to Nasir’s case, IFRC denied there were any issues with the system or its response, with Cochrane saying the organization, “took Ms. Nasir’s complaint very seriously and immediately looked into the matter.”

“Due to the nature of the complaint, we brought in an external investigator with significant experience and expertise in investigating sexual harassment who had the skills needed to ensure a survivor-centred approach,” Cochrane said.

“The external investigator found that Ms. Nasir’s complaint was substantiated and, as a result, we initiated a disciplinary process against the subject of concern, who was then sanctioned.”

While IFRC said it could not disclose the specific sanctions taken, the organization believed it was “proportionate to the misconduct and appropriate under the circumstances of the case.”

Legal documents from IFRC to Nasir stated that “IFRC reiterates that it has adhered to all internal rules and procedures in handling the alleged misconduct, in particular Chapter IX of its Staff Regulations and the Anti‐Harassment Guidelines,” the latter dating back to 2007. 

As to allegations made by Nasir that IFRC did not follow a survivor-centric approach, this was strongly disputed, saying it “upheld its duty of care,” achieving this through an independent investigation, offers of psychosocial support, and having a senior HR adviser available to “provide updates on the case and to receive any additional information.”

IFRC would not answer a number of questions from Devex about its response due to its “responsibility to protect the privacy of those involved” as well as the case being “the subject of an appeal” — including why an HR officer contacted Nasir to request names of other potential victims, about the perpetrator’s future within the organization, and whether he is able to seek further engagement with IFRC, the Red Cross network or other humanitarian organizations.

However, Cochrane said that IFRC is part of the Interagency Misconduct Disclosure Scheme, through which it has committed to systematically checking with previous employers before hiring an individual to ensure no prior misconduct. The organization also committed to systematically informing potential employers who seek a reference from IFRC of all disciplinary action taken and the nature of the misconduct. “This case will be no exception,” he said.

But Nasir wants a stronger response, with a clear statement that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

“I want the IFRC to be answerable to me and their stakeholders as to why they didn’t fire the guy,” she said. “Otherwise they are telling other perpetrators that they can get away with sexual harassment, and telling victims that they need to keep quiet.This has to stop.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.