Sexual abuse is still going unchecked in the aid sector. We need bold solutions

Sarah Champion

The aid sector was rocked in 2018 when revelations surfaced that humanitarian aid workers had been paying local vulnerable women for sex in Haiti while responding to the 2010 earthquake. More recently, during the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sex-for-jobs schemes were an open secret among aid workers with victims of abuse ferried to and from hotels in vehicles carrying World Health Organisation insignia.

In both instances, aid organisations utterly failed in their duty to listen to, or engage with, local communities and survivors and victims of sexual exploitation. The result: perpetrators had the freedom to continue to act with astounding levels of impunity. Depressingly, incidents like these are not isolated. Last week, the international development committee that I chair reported that sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector is endemic. A survey conducted to support the inquiry provided for alarming reading:

    • 73% of respondents believe there remains a problem of sexual exploitation and abuse being perpetrated by aid workers; and
    • 26% claimed to have witnessed or observed sexual exploitation first-hand.

The Haiti scandal did prompt action to address sexual abuse and exploitation. Prior to being abolished by the government, the Department for International Development held two safeguarding summits from which numerous commitments flowed. Bond, the UK network for aid organisations, published a wealth of safeguarding resources. Several organisations the committee heard from have introduced training for staff and appointed safeguarding leads. Yet the abhorrent behaviour persists.

My committee heard compelling evidence indicating that failing to engage local people as experts leads to policies and safeguarding mechanisms that simply do not work. Take reporting and investigations as an example. Esther Dross, an adviser on protection against abuse, explained to the committee that reporting mechanisms are rarely used by local populations if they aren’t designed in concert with the people they’re intended for.

Supporting this, we heard from journalist Nellie Peyton, who said that in the DRC, UNICEF had 22 reporting mechanisms in place to receive complaints – yet none of the victims she talked to were aware of them. Evidence from the committee survey highlighted that this problem is prevalent throughout the sector:

    • 45% said the the sector had made little or no progress on ensuring aid recipients know their rights and entitlements, who to report cases of abuse to or what support is available; and
    • Just 16% thought their organisation has safe reporting and complaints mechanisms in place to enable instances of sexual exploitation and abuse to be raised.

The solution is not complicated. Local organisations, such as women’s or children’s rights groups, have the trust of their communities; they know what will work to prevent abuse and they understand what types of reporting mechanisms will be used. Aid organisations need to work with them.

An overriding principle of our international development and humanitarian policy must be meaningful engagement with local people. Lesley Agams, a writer, lawyer and social entrepreneur from Nigeria gave evidence to our inquiry. Agams went so far as to say that humanitarian aid distribution should be delegated to women and women’s organisations. I am certainly of the belief that we need to consider bold solutions like these if we are to tackle this enduring and unacceptable abuse.

Aid organisations have a duty to act, but so too does the government. Currently, it is dragging its feet and seems set to pursue an agenda of cuts to the aid budget that could devastate small local organisations that currently lead their own development. The government must make a firm commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to abuse. This starts with stripping funding from organisations that fail to robustly tackle abuse or demonstrate active engagement with local partners and communities.

The IDC report, ‘Progress on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries’, can be found here.

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