One in 3 U.N. employees has reported being sexually harassed in the past two years, according to a survey that the United Nations released last week.
It’s part of an unfortunate trend in the humanitarian sector: complaints about sexual harassment, bullying and other unacceptable workplace behavior.
The U.N. survey comes on the heels of a UNAIDS report in December, which confirmed that its leadership failed to address widespread complaints of bullying and sexual harassment.
And just this month, charges of racial discrimination and bias and financial misconduct at the World Health Organization were leveled in three anonymous emails. WHO issued a statement saying that it will conduct an investigation “according to WHO’s established procedures.”
These are the most recent examples of how the aid industry is not immune to sexual abuse, says Paula Donovan, head of Code Blue, a campaign to end impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel.
And the issue goes beyond staff interactions. Oxfam, for example, was rocked last year by a Times of London report that employees were soliciting sex from local women in post-earthquake Haiti. This month, the charity published an interim report outlining its plan to address such misconduct.
The U.N. survey, conducted with Deloitte, a consulting group, was sent online to staffers in November 2018 and completed by 30,364 respondents.
According to the survey, some of the most common forms of sexual harassment were sexual jokes that were offensive, offensive remarks about appearance or sexual activities and unwelcome attempts to make conversations about sex.
The highest rates of sexual harassment, by employment type, were among junior professional officers, at 49 percent, U.N. volunteers at 39 percent, and consultants at 38.7 percent.
Those who identified as lesbian, gay and queer reported the highest rates of harassment within the “prevalence by sexual identity” category: 53 percent, 48 percent and 48 percent respectively.
Why harassment may happen
There may be reasons why organizations like the U.N. are prone to such issues.
Nate Rabe, a senior humanitarian professional who has worked with the U.N. and many international non-governmental organizations, told NPR: “Much of the work of the U.N. et al is done in remote areas” and in regions where the norms about sexual harassment are less clear.
As a result, Rabe suggests, “It’s easy to get away with it without much scrutiny.”
In addition, when it comes to interacting with local populations, aid workers have a power advantage over citizens in a crisis who are “in trauma or struggling to survive,” he notes. “It is very easy to demand and receive silence for predatory behavior.”
Finally, he thinks that “the public generally gives aid workers a pass — they are seen as doing humanitarian work in difficult situations and they are extended not just a benefit of the doubt but often are implicitly trusted.” So there is, he argues, “a curtain of unquestioning around the industry.”
Donovan says that the U.N.’s immunity status — which gives staff members certain privileges and exemptions under national and international law — can also contribute to the organization’s impunity.
Unless the industry takes serious steps to punish the abusers, the problems will keep happening, say watchdog groups.
What the new reports make clear is that these are persistent problems, said Shaista Aziz and Alexa Pepper de Caires, the founders of NGO Safe Space, in an email to NPR. The group gathers testimonies on sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in the humanitarian aid and international development sector.
Over the past year, some charities have made an effort to take action against internal reports of sexual misconduct. In February, Oxfam’s deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence stepped down, taking “full responsibility” for the Haiti incident, which happened under her watch.
And this month, Oxfam’s Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change released an interim report outlining its plan to tackle its sexual harassment problems.
It’s a step in the right direction — but it’s not enough, says Megan Nobert, an independent consultant and founder of Report the Abuse, a project that researched sexual offenses by aid staffers from 2015 to 2017.
“To those who have experienced such unacceptable behavior, we are sorry, I am sorry and we will follow up on any cases passed to us by the Commission as a matter of urgency,” said Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International executive director, in a statement issued in January.
Activists want to see the same kind of response from the U.N. “We need to see criminal prosecutions against perpetrators, we need to see women given access to independent legal advice and access to legal funds to pursue pathways to justice and we need to see victims compensated, and this includes in monetary terms,” wrote Aziz and Pepper de Caires.
The UNAIDS report in December, for example, conducted by an independent panel, called for the removal of Michel Sidibe, its executive director of UNAIDS.
UNAIDS spokesperson Sophie Barton-Knott told NPR that Sidibe, who had commissioned the independent review, would leave his post at the end of June, the result of a “personal decision.”
In response to this month’s U.N. survey, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a public statement that said the organization has created a hotline and a new set of policies to safeguard against harassment.
In addition, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric says the U.N. has put a number of other actions in place. It has created a database of people who have been relieved of their positions for sexual harassment reasons to prevent “agency-hopping” from say, WHO, to another humanitarian agency. And the U.N. has hired six new investigators, all women, to focus on sexual harassment cases full-time.
But what Megan Nobert, the founder of Report the Abuse, really wants is a complete cultural shift in the industry: “a rebuilding of trust among the aid community, women in particular, who have been attacked, assaulted and disappointed over many, many years.”
“No one wants to feel safe in their workplace … [more] than myself,” says Nobert, who in 2015 spoke publicly about being drugged and raped by a U.N. supplier while on a mission to South Sudan. “But if we push for quick change, a few years from now we’ll be having these same conversations again.”