UN must end 'toxic tolerance' of sexual abuse of aid workers, top official says

Kate Gilmore, U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights. Photo by: Elma Okic / UN Geneva / CC BY-NC-ND

A top United Nations official has criticized aid bosses for failing to protect staff from sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of fellow aid workers and said there can be “no more excuses” for allowing such a culture of “toxic tolerance” to carry on.

Kate Gilmore, deputy high commissioner for human rights at the U.N., called on humanitarian workers to campaign against what she described as the “systemic calamity” and “hypocrisy” within the industry, which has allowed widespread abuse against female workers to go unpunished for years.

Her comments come after two advocacy groups, the Humanitarian Women’s Network and Report the Abuse — as well as the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University — put forward research that shows a startlingly high number of women claim to have experienced harassment or sexual violence at the hands of their male colleagues at some point in their careers.

How the legal system is failing to protect women and girls from sexual violence

Laws that allow perpetrators of sexual violence to go unpunished still exist in a large number of countries, including in Europe, a new report has found. Gender experts talk about the enduring problem of women's access to justice and what the development community is doing to address it.

The research, which is based on the interviews, surveys and testimonials of more than 2,000 women, revealed that many victims are too afraid to report their experiences to their employers for fear of personal and professional repercussions, as Devex reported.

Speaking to a packed audience at a side event held during the U.N. Economic and Social Council Humanitarian Affairs Segment in Geneva last week, Gilmore called for swift and strong action to end the abuse.

“Sexual abuse of humanitarian staff has been neglected. Well, friends, no more excuses, no more inaction … no more betrayal of duty, no more impunity,” she said.

The deputy commissioner called on aid bosses to implement a range of reforms, including raising staff awareness about the problem, making staff aware of their rights and obligations, providing a “safe and private means” of confidential reporting for victims, and also collecting more data on cases.

However, she also warned that these measures would not be enough to change the status quo within humanitarian NGOs and agencies, which she described as dominated by a “culture of toxic tolerance” toward sexual aggression, homophobia, sexism and racism.  

In addition, all humanitarian workers need to “join us in the campaign” and “stand up, speak out” if they witness cases of abuse, she said, warning that “until we create a tidal wave of condemnation in the other direction, the ship will not turn.”

Gilmore delivered her call to arms in her role as co-champion of a working group established by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, to investigate the alleged widespread sexual abuse and harassment within the sector. Lindsay Coates, head of InterAction, is the other champion.

The IASC coordinates the different U.N. agencies and NGOs working on humanitarian assistance and was prompted to set up the task force late last year in response to pressure from the HWN and Report the Abuse, as Devex reported at the time.

Beneficiaries are not the only ones at risk

The U.N. has been cracking down on sexual abuse of beneficiaries by U.N. personnel in recent years, and Secretary-General António Guterres made the protection from sexual exploitation and abuse agenda, known as PSEA, a priority in his first weeks in office. However, attacks against the institution’s own workers have gone relatively unnoticed, according to the IASC Chief Belinda Holdsworth.

“If we are talking about sexual abuse, very often and rightly so, we are talking about protection of people who receive aid … but what we don’t talk about is the hidden threat that’s out there, it’s sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers by aid workers,” Holdsworth said.

Also speaking on the panel was Megan Nobert, founder of the NGO Report the Abuse, which started collecting data on the prevalence of abuse and harassment among female aid workers in 2015.

Nobert set up the group after she was raped by a fellow aid worker while on mission in South Sudan. Agencies and NGOs needed better policies and procedures, as well as trainings, on how to prevent sexual misconduct, but also guidance on how to respond when cases do occur. Report the Abuse is in the process of developing tools and guidelines, which will be published later this summer, she said.

Aid bosses must set a better example

Nobert also called on senior management to “show the way” to staff through “model behavior.” According to her research, men in senior positions are often the perpetrators of abuse.

This theme was also taken up by Niels Scott, resident coordinator for UNDP in Georgia, who said people in management positions, including himself, needed to show stronger leadership and stop the kind of “inappropriate behavior” — including drinking and drug taking — which he said often led to sexual aggression.

“I’ve felt in a number of places I worked that things got out of hand and it was too late to intervene, we didn’t give the leadership in the beginning,” he said.

Speaking to Devex before the panel, Scott said he had come across a number of sexual assault cases throughout his more than 20 years working for the U.N., but he said the victims rarely got justice. This was partly due to the lack of clear “judiciary networks” and proper procedures and reputational concerns among senior managers.

“It’s been difficult and I’ve known cases [that] were not substantiated simply because we weren’t able to pursue a proper process, so the perpetrators were not sanctioned and again the victims were made to feel they shouldn’t have initiated it in the first place,” he said.

Such failures not only harm the victims, but they also damage the reputation and influence of the aid organizations involved, Scott said.

“It’s ruining people’s lives but also the operations we run,” he said, adding that humanitarian workers needed to set a better example both inside and outside of their compounds. “It’s not good enough to … do exactly what you want within the compound, because the local community will know and they won’t respect you,” he said.

Funders have a role to play

Aid agencies and NGOs are not the only actors who need to clean up their act when it comes to addressing sexual harassment and abuse within their organizations; aid donors are also to blame, the panelists said, for not doing better due diligence on their grantees.

“How can it be that we subject our money to more scrutiny than the way we care for our people?” Gilmore asked. Scott proposed that funders include provisions in their grant agreements specifically related to tackling sexual assault and harassment of staff.

“I suggest you take critical look at way you disperse money and require concrete prevention [of sexual abuse and harassment],” he said. “That would be a significant benefit to us, put a lot of weight behind what we all agree needs to be done and making sure recommendations are actually implemented,” he said.

This point was supported by a representative from Canada, who agreed that U.N. member states needed to pay more attention to sexual abuse during the due diligence process and not just focus on “fiduciary matters.”

Signs of progress

Other audience members also showed their support for the IASC’s new tough stance on sexual harassment and shared information about their own activities to address the issue.

A representative from the United Nations Children's Fund said her organization has started to establish updated policies and guidelines for staff about sexual abuse and harassment and are also providing clinical, psychosocial and legal services to victims. She said a recent survey revealed that 92 percent of staff said they were aware of UNICEF’s policies on the issue.

An official from the U.N. Security Management System also said that after seeing the HWN report, the U.N.’s security chiefs called for new tools and a user guide to be developed, which will be finalized later in the year. They’re also working on updated training programs for all security staff to make them better able to detect and respond to cases of sexual harassment and abuse.  

According to the Tufts report, the unsupportive attitude among many of the predominantly male security staff was often a key barrier to women reporting sexual abuse.

Sexual assault and harassment in the aid sector: Survivor stories

Four female aid workers spoke to Devex about their experiences of sexual harassment, violence and even rape while working on projects abroad. Their stories, told anonymously at their request, highlight some major issues facing women in the industry and the urgent need for reform.

De-romanticizing the humanitarian aid worker

There is “nothing magic about being a humanitarian that makes you a better person,” according to Gilmore, who said that too often aid workers are put on a pedestal.  

“Sexual violence flourishes where power is at its most stratified,” and so “why should a humanitarian field setting be any different … and they are not,” she said.

Similarly, Scott described a sense of “romance” and “bravado” about being an aid workers that pervades the sector, along with a “work hard, play hard” attitude shared by some of its members.

Such idealized and romantic images will have to change, both inside and outside of the sector, Gilmore said, until staff realize that they are in fact privileged to undertake what she described as “the greatest of human enterprises: to stand with those most vulnerable.”

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

  • 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.