Getting Your Own House In Order

14. März 2018

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In 2017, the British NGO Oxfam reported a record number of staff-against-staff sexual harassment complaints. This was after it had implemented an enhanced anti-harassment policy.[1] Oxfam called upon fellow aid organizations to follow suit and “bring [their] own house in order.”[2] In February 2018, the same call was made against Oxfam itself when a scandal on workers hiring prostitutes on the 2012 Haiti mission arose.[3]

The wave of revelations which followed brought cases of sexual harassment and abuse against aid staff by fellow workers to the surface. Oxfam’s former head of safeguarding, Helen Evans revealed that internal documentation of significant numbers of internal abuse – including child abuse in the UK and cases of rape in South Sudan –  was not pursued further in 2015.[4]  UNICEF deputy executive director, Justin Forsyth resigned after admitting to claims of sexually harassing staff during his time at Save the Children.[5] Humanitarian organizations should be exemplary in following up on sexual harassment and abuse when their procedures do not prevent it. The recent revelations show they are not.

Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) perpetrated by UN personnel in areas of armed conflict has received international attention since the 2000s. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a Bulletin in 2003 that sets standards for SEA prohibition, prevention, and repression within agencies.[6] Since then, UN agencies and many NGOs have adopted anti-harassment policies, which define prohibitions, training requirements and complaint procedures.

SEA prevention initiatives have focused on violations committed by aid staff against beneficiaries. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the UN’s humanitarian coordination committee, established a prevention task force in 2012, which was soon merged with the “Accountability to Affected Populations” task team. This reflects a narrow focus. Merely one single paragraph on the task force’s website refers to potential abuse of aid workers by fellow humanitarians. It notes that the overall goal of the best practices it advocates is to protect humanitarian personnel from committing SEA, regardless against whom, and adds that some agencies do have workplace harassment policies.[7]

The IASC’s Senior Focal Points on Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Aid Workers raised the issue at the UN Economic and Social Council side meeting in June 2017. The group’s co-chair and Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kate Gilmore, criticized the “hypocrisy” of the humanitarian community and called for industry-wide reforms.[8] Yet concrete and sustained initiatives are lacking. In 2015, aid worker and sexual abuse survivor Megan Nobert founded the NGO Report the Abuse (RtA) to tackle the issue. Lacking funding, it ceased operations in 2017.

Two independent studies published by the Humanitarian Women’s Network (HWN) and RtA in 2016 point to the scale of abuse within the sector. Forty-eight percent of female aid workers surveyed by HWN had experienced on-mission sexual harassment, of which 4 percent constituted rape.[9] RtA’s survey found that 66 percent of participants had experienced on-mission sexual harassment. The majority of perpetrators were identified as colleagues, while a quarter were reported to be members of local communities. Forty-two percent of harassment victims never filed a complaint, and less than a fifth of those who did felt that it was handled accurately.[10]

What causes this situation? First, prevention and reporting policies are not always in place. Of the 92 organizations RtA examined, only 30 percent had codes of conduct, which moreover did not always mention sexual harassment. Secondly, where reporting mechanisms are in place, they might be inefficient or mistrusted. Participants in a 2017 Feinstein Centre survey indicated that reporting incidents might entail career damage. Fearful of reprisals, staff often perceived those superiors responsible for handling sexual violence reports as hostile. Additionally, investigations often lacked perseverance, while officials felt ill-equipped to adequately pursue them. [11]

With less staff and facilities available in the field than in an organization’s headquarters, policies may be more difficult to pursue than in an organization’s headquarters.[12] Law enforcement procedures may be complicated or inadequate and may re-traumatize victims.[13] In the male-dominated security sector, sexual harassment risks may not be prioritized. Despite being addressed in staff training manuals, they are not emphasized in actual training.[14] Yet high-risk environments specifically require increased awareness. Appalling failures – like the cases of humanitarian workers sent to South Sudan without any briefing on sexual violence risks[15] – have to be avoided.

In security risk assessments, sexual harassment and abuse risks incurred by humanitarians are assumed to stem from outside the sector. The Humanitarian Practice Network’s operational security guidelines also imply some amount of victim responsibility. They note that female staff’s behavior or appearance may be perceived as “overly sexual” in certain contexts. In high-risk environments, accompanying female staff and lodging them with male co-workers is recommended.[16] Indeed, there is a risk of aggressive behavior by members of the local community. Yet combating it through increased exposure to co-workers is only desirable with effective anti-harassment policies in place.

In 2017, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres issued a report which identifies shortcomings in implementing the anti-SEA initiative: insufficient pre-employment screening, lack of training, weak disciplinary enforcement, and ultimately, lack of  UN and Member State commitment[17]. He released an action plan to improve victim support and share best practices and stressed the adverse impact the abuse of beneficiaries has on the UN’s reputation.

Reputation concerns may explain why he chose not to address internal abuse, but condemn it in an internal letter to UN staff.[18] This is the wrong message to send. Concerns for their humanitarian employers’ reputation are a factor which prevents victims from reporting abuse and hinders inter-agency cooperation.[19]

NGOs should implement robust workplace sexual harassment and abuse policies. Guidelines are available.[20] Policies need to include confidential complaint mechanisms, clearly assigned responsibilities, trained focal points to accompany victims, and follow-up monitoring and disciplinary sanctions. Sexual harassment should be integrated in repeated training sessions across positions. Policies should also include basic psychological, medical and legal assistance.

In February 2018, UK Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt announced that her ministry would investigate 192 UK charity organizations and establish a “Safeguarding Unit”. She advocated establishing a global development worker register to facilitate vetting, and announced that a global Safeguarding Summit will be hosted in March.[21] Humanitarian organizations should use this momentum to review their procedures and truly “bring their house in order.”



PictureUN Photo: Isaac Billy

[1] Holly Watt, “Oxfam says it has sacked 22 staff in a year over sexual abuse allegations”, The Guardian, 2017,, accessed 8 December 2017.

[2] Hannah Clare, “Safeguarding: getting your own house in order”, Oxfam Policy & Practice Blog, 2016,, accessed 6 December 2017.

[3] “Oxfam Haiti allegations: How the scandal unfolded”, BBC, 2018, , accessed 27 February 2018.

[4] “Oxfam scandal: Helen Evans’ Channel 4 interview, full transcript.” The Spectator, 2018,, accessed 27 February 2018.

[5] “Save the Children boss Justin Forsyth apologises over texts”, BBC, 2017,, accessed 27 February 2018.

[6] United Nations Secretariat, Secretary General’s Bulletin, Special Measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (9 October 2003), ST/SGB/2003.

[7] PSEA Taskforce, “FAQ”,, accessed 7 December 2017.

[8] Sophie Edwards, “UN must end ‘toxic tolerance’ of sexual abuse of aid workers, top official says”, Devex, 2017,, accessed 8 December 2017.

[9] Humanitarian Women’s Network, “Survey Data”, 2016, accessed 8 December 2017.

[10] Megan Nobert, Prevention, Policy and Procedure Checklist. Responding to Sexual Violence in Humanitarian and Development Settings (Geneva: Report the Abuse, 2016).

[11] Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly, Stop the Sexual Assault against Humanitarian and Development Aid Workers (Somerville: Feinstein International Center, 2017).

[12] Megan Nobert, Addressing Sexual Violence in Humanitarian Organisations: Good Practices for Improved Prevention Measures, Policies, and Procedures (Geneva: Report the Abuse, 2017).

[13] Humanitarian Practice Network, Operational Security Management in Violent Environments. Good Practice Review 8. Revised Edition. (London: Humanitarian Practice Network, 2010).

[14] Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly, Stop the Sexual Assault against Humanitarian and Development Aid Workers. Op cit., 23-26.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Humanitarian Practice Network, Operational Security Management in Violent Environments. Good Practice Review 8. Revised Edition. (London: Humanitarian Practice Network, 2010).

[17] United Nations Secretariat, Secretary General’s Bulletin, Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach (28 February 2017), A/71/818.

[18] Amy Lieberman, “Guterres says UN needs to do more to combat sexual harassment”, Devex, 2017,, accessed 8 December 2017.

[19] Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly, Stop the Sexual Assault against Humanitarian and Development Aid Workers. Op cit., 27.

[20] see Corinne Davey and Lucy Heaven Taylor, PSEA Implementation Quick Reference Handbook (London: CHS Alliance, 2017); Megan Nobert, Addressing Sexual Violence in Humanitarian Organisations: Good Practices for Improved Prevention Measures, Policies, and Procedures (Geneva: Report the Abuse, 2017).

[21]Department for International Trade and the Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, International Development Secretary’s speech at the Bond conference, 26 February 2018,, accessed 27 February 2018.

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Serafine Dinkel

Serafine is pursuing the joint masters’ degree between Sciences Po and the University of St. Gallen, specializing in her first year in International Security. Her primary interests are peace and security, human rights, international law as well as European affairs. She is a member of The Policy Corner's 2017/18 team project at Sciences Po Paris.