Women in the global aid sector are saying #AidToo

The World
Illustration

Sam Ward 

There’s been a flurry of stories lately about sexual misconduct in the international aid community. Oxfam workers paying for sex in Haiti. UN peacekeepers assaulting the people they’re supposed to be helping in Congo. Syrian women trading sex for food and aid. In fact, a recent study showed that over 120 staff from leading international charities were fired or lost their jobs in 2017 over inappropriate behavior.

And there is another aspect of sexual misconduct in the aid sector — harassment and abuse endured by aid workers themselves, at the hands of their humanitarian colleagues.

“You would be very hard-pressed to find a female aid or development worker who has not experienced some type of sexual harassment,” says veteran aid worker, Heidi Lehmann. “Unfortunately, navigating sexual harassment, and finding ways to keep yourself safe as a woman, is often seen as the price of being a female aid worker. That’s wrong.”

Related: The Oxfam scandal shows that reform is needed in the humanitarian aid sector

Many women aid workers are prepared to face the more traditional risks that are sometimes inherent in their line of work and which they are trained to handle: roadside bombs, natural disasters and dealing with armed guards at checkpoints.

Megan Nobert was working in South Sudan in 2015, at a camp for people who are displaced. She was focused on helping women and girls cope with sexual violence and how it could be prevented. She said she felt prepared for the threats she would face working in a conflict zone.

“I don’t think that I could be conceived as being naïve. And certainly while I understood the risks of being in South Sudan and there were bombings, it was a calculated risk, me being there,” she says. “I certainly never expected that someone would put drugs in my red wine on a Saturday night.”

After Nobert drank that doctored wine, she says she was raped by a man working as a contractor for UNICEF. A few months later, Nobert decided to go public with her story and began speaking to the press. Soon after, she began hearing from survivors in the humanitarian community who said they had experienced assault, too.

Related: After sexual assault, this former aid worker found little help from UN

Nobert founded Report The Abuse in 2015, which she claims was then the only global nonprofit working on the issue of sexual violence against aid workers. It folded two years later due to a lack of funding but Nobert says she heard from more than a thousand aid workers about their experiences with sexual abuse and harassment. Most of them told her they had experienced it in the course of their work. About 65 percent of those incidents were perpetrated by their colleagues.

Nobert’s survey is unscientific, and she acknowledges that a self-selected group responded. Even so, other surveys reveal that abuse and harassment in the aid sector is a problem. Yet, many aid groups don’t train their staff about these risks. After Nobert was raped, she discovered the aid group she was working for was caught off guard by what happened to her.

“They had no policies or procedures in place to address sexual violence. And insofar as I’m aware, nobody within the organization or at least within senior management knew how to respond to a sexual violence survivor.”

Nobert says it took about a week for her to get evacuated from South Sudan, which “was a long time, considering I was being —almost hourly, at one point — exposed to my perpetrator, as he followed me around the camp in Bentiu.”

Nobert says she did not press charges against the contractor, in part because the region where the assault occurred was so unstable. “It’s a very weak state,” she explains. “The police force and the justice system are nonfunctioning.” She says she wouldn’t recommend that local women she was working with go to the local justice system for recourse. “It would be so retraumatizing that I don’t think it would end up serving good in the end. So, for myself, going to local police, that wasn’t really an option.”

Nobert did seek what she describes as “accountability or action” from UNICEF, since the man who raped her was one of its contractors. “Unfortunately, that particular relationship falls in a gray area. UNICEF has no responsibility for the actions of their contractors, even if it is committing something as horrendous as rape,” she says. UNICEF told us that it directed the contractor to remove the perpetrator from any UNICEF assignments.

But that man who assaulted Nobert could be following another woman around right now, in some other conflict zone or maybe he assaulted other women before he arrived in South Sudan. It’s hard to know, since so far the humanitarian community has had a difficult time ejecting serial perpetrators from within its ranks.

Oxfam’s recent scandal in Haiti, for example, exposed how its country director moved from one organization to the next, despite repeat behavior with local women. Roland Van Hauwermeiren lost his job with the medical relief charity Merlin after hosting alleged sex parties in Liberia in 2004. He was then hired by Oxfam to work in Chad, and in Haiti, where he later resigned after similar accusations of sexual exploitation and misconduct were lodged against him. He then moved on to Bangladesh where he was hired as head of mission for the French nonprofit, Action Against Hunger.

Clearly, the sector has struggled to properly vet job candidates. A seasoned aid worker, who did not want to be identified because she is still working in the sector, says when she is considering hiring someone, it is almost impossible to get a complete picture of their reputation in the office — or in a crisis zone — because aid work is so global and so transitory.

“If you don’t know anyone who has been in the same organization, in the same mission, in the same country, in the same period of time, then you have no way to really check,” she says. “People move so fast, people change organizations, so it’s really hard to track.”

It’s too early to say whether serial perpetrators will be flagged more publicly and frequently now, in light of the #MeToo movement, which has galvanized women across many industries to speak up about sexual abuse in the workplace. Humanitarian staff are raising their voices, too, and have even created their own hashtag, #AidToo.

Even so, it’s difficult to ascertain the scope of the problem of sexual abuse and harassment in the aid sector because there is a lack of data, and what numbers do exist are likely underreported. After all, the sector as a whole has not been designed or led in a manner that encourages victims to come forward, and in fact, they can be silenced in myriad ways.

“People who try to report can be blocked by their supervisors, they can be blocked through intimidation and continued harassment,” says Tufts University professor Dyan Mazurana, one of the few scholars who has studied sexual harassment and abuse among aid workers.

Mazurana and her colleagues reviewed testimonies from 57 men and women who were victims of sexual harassment and assault and conducted 30 in-depth interviews. She says it is an industry in denial. “A number of times when we spoke to victims, they said that they were not believed. And when pressed, they were fired,” she says, describing how victims sometimes had their contracts terminated or were transferred without notice.

“Somehow, the victim is the problem because they’re bringing up the fact that there’s something really wrong with the agency, and agencies don’t want to deal with it,” she says.

“People who try to report can be blocked by their supervisors, they can be blocked through intimidation and continued harassment.” —Dyan Mazurana, Tufts University professor

But aid groups are under increasing pressure to deal with this issue in a meaningful, even transformational manner. In recent weeks, more than a thousand aid workers — and counting — have signed an open letter calling for urgent reform in the aid sector. Agencies claim they are improving their reporting processes and staff training and instituting zero tolerance policies.

But if cases of sexual harassment and abuse are to be handled properly, the aid sector may have to confront another challenge: donor relations. In the course of her research, Mazurana discovered a sector that is so dependent on government, private and individual donors, that when cases of sexual misconduct arise, the priority is often risk management.

Mazurana spoke to a number of women and LGBTQ survivors of sexual assault — males and females alike — who were told that if word got out, it could threaten the entire aid project. “They were told by their higher-ups, ‘This could close down our whole project. If you report, and the media gets news of this, we’re done. You’ve got to be a team player.’”

It may be surprising to hear that survivors receive these kinds of responses from charitable organizations but just like any other industry, the sector is filled with people who have a range of motives.

An aid worker named Heather, who only wanted to use her first name because she is still employed in the sector, says working in dangerous places, where people are in crisis, appeals to lots of good-hearted people. And after working in emergency humanitarian response in more than a dozen nations, she says it is also a sector that perpetrators actively seek out.

“They have enormous access to very vulnerable people and huge opportunity in environments where there is so little oversight,” she explains. “At the same time, they have the cover and the guise of doing good in the world.”

And for those in the sector, who wind up victims of abuse and harassment, it’s possible that they may be more inclined than professionals in other industries to push harassment to the back burner. After all, many are working every day with people who are in crisis and may see their own harassment or abuse as less significant when compared to the lives of those around them.

“Those kinds of environments can be very adrenalin-fueled and can be very heightened, in the sense of what beneficiaries need, what the people we’re working with need,” Heather says. “So, it becomes very easy for there to be a kind of ‘stop whingeing [complaining] about this minor thing when out here people are dying.’”

A tale of two aid sectors: expats versus ‘national staff’

Many of those who are delivering aid across the world are people of color from developing nations. They’re hired locally and often referred to as “national staff.” Increasingly, they are being deployed to other nations, too. So you might find a Zimbabwean delivering aid in Haiti, an Ethiopian in South Sudan, or someone from Ecuador working in Honduras.

And when they begin traveling like this, they face a set of risks. “When I left my country and started moving, I felt like I was a lot more exposed to sexual harassment. And I often ask myself why,” says Linda, a veteran aid worker from the East and Horn of Africa region. She agreed to speak about her experiences working in several African nations if we would protect her identity. Linda is not her real name, and she is still working in the sector.

When deployed to other countries, Linda often works with male colleagues who also come from other countries, and who may have different opinions about how women should be treated in the workplace.

“As an African woman, you struggle with a lot of things. You’re coming from a highly patriarchal society, and you’re trying to overcome that. And then we are most times deployed in settings which [are] deeply patriarchal or where men do not respect women,” she says.

In the decade that Linda has worked in humanitarian aid, she says she has been sexually harassed or assaulted in every nation she’s traveled to except for one. A lot of that harassment has occurred in guesthouses — or “team houses.” When aid workers are on assignment, they frequently sleep under the same roof with colleagues they have never met.

“Sharing guesthouses with people you don’t know, you don’t know their background; it’s very, very challenging for female staff and provides avenues where female humanitarian aid workers are easily exposed to sexual harassment,” she says.

For instance, Linda recounts working in what was considered a “hardship post” in East Africa for a well-known international aid group. Every five weeks or so, she’d get a few days of “rest and recuperation” (referred to as R&R) in the capital city, at the organization’s guesthouse. Linda recalls going there to find the place completely empty. Then, a male colleague arrived whom she had never met.

She greeted him and made friendly small talk. But later in the evening, the dynamic between them began to change.

“This staff [member] started telling me things [that were] inappropriate. How he liked me, and [he] even touched me. And I told him, ‘You know, I don’t think I like what you’re doing. You cannot just touch someone like that or tell someone something inappropriate.’ The man stopped, and later Linda went to her room for the night but was shocked to see the locks on the doors were broken. “If I can remember, that was the longest night I have ever had because I was so scared. I was imagining, ‘What if this guy walks into my room and rapes me?’”

He didn’t. The man left the next morning on another assignment. But Linda says if she had been raped that night, she doesn’t think anyone would have believed her. And she has doubts that she would get the same kind of support that a white woman would receive. “In general terms, yes, black women who report the case are not handled in the same way as a white woman,” she says.

Linda described how she and some African colleagues responded after one of their American colleagues was sexually assaulted and subsequently evacuated by helicopter.

“The action that was taken by my organization at that time, obviously it raised a lot of questions. So many people were talking; like even black women said, ‘OK, if this was a black woman, could the organization have hired a chopper to go and pick this person from there? Could the organization have given her three months break with full pay? And could the organization have provided her provisions to come back or to be reassigned in another position?’ So, these are privileges that, as black women, I think we do not have,” she says.

Another thing they may not have is equal compensation. In 2007, Project ADD-UP — or Are Development Discrepancies Undermining Performance? — studied the effects of the wage gap between local and international staff working in lower-income countries. After surveying 1,300 local and expatriate workers from around 200 organizations in six countries, they found that, despite having similar education and experience, local staff were paid four times less on average than their international colleagues. And this discrepancy goes further into perks like accommodation allowances, access to vehicles on weekends, school fees for their children, R&R and so on. 

Proponents of this dual-pay system say international staff have higher costs of living back home and that aid groups need to offer them competitive salaries. They also want to avoid skewing the pay scales of local economies, like in Haiti after the earthquake. However, that same study found that these pay disparities created among local staff “significant feelings of workplace injustice. They felt less valued than their expatriate colleagues.”

Linda says that even though she’s been harassed on the job many times, she has never filed a complaint because she doesn’t see any point in doing so. “There wouldn’t be sufficient action taken, and if action is taken, they would say, ‘There’s no facts or evidence to substantiate the claim,’” she insists. “I’ve seen it happen to many staff. There was one when I was a national staff. The thing was investigated, and the lady [accuser]became an outcast in the organization. I’ve not really gone steps to report because basically, you don’t expect anything to be done about it,” she says.

A look online shows that issues surrounding the dual-pay system are frequently dealt with by humanitarian workers. It is an ongoing conversation on The Guardian’s Secret Aid Worker and provides debate on a number of blogs by aid workers trying to come to terms with the discrepancies.

There’s another issue, too, about reporting. Sometimes these attacks happen in places where rule of law isn’t so strong. “Women in Africa who are working for international development, they need a whole lot more protection,” says former Nigerian aid worker Lesley Agams. “The stories I heard before I became a victim. Some of them were horrendous.”

Agams used to work for a well-known international aid group in Nigeria. She says she was sexually assaulted by her boss but the organization could not find sufficient evidence to substantiate her claim. (Note: We are not getting into the particulars of Agams’ case in this story, and therefore, we are not naming the organization she worked for at the time.)

However, Agams and Linda agree that many aid workers face abuse regardless of race or where they’re from. Agams recalls hearing about a female American intern who was apparently brutally raped by another American in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Her abuser took advantage of the fact that they were in Africa where the … judicial system is more vulnerable to influences, especially the influence of money. And they do things that they would not dare try in Europe or in the US.”

The international nature of aid work, coupled with the fact that the work often takes place in regions that are in political crisis or social upheaval, adds to the complexity of prosecuting these cases. A victim can be from one country, the perpetrator from another, and both may be working for an organization headquartered in yet another country.

Christine Williamson is the founder and director of Duty of Care International, which helps aid groups put policies and systems in place so that workers are safe in humanitarian settings. She says when victims want to report assault that happens amid a humanitarian crisis — or in a conflict zone — there’s basically one way to do it. “I would say nine times out of 10, you’re supposed to report it to the police.”

But amid a humanitarian crisis or in a conflict zone, Williamson acknowledges that it may be incredibly hard for an aid worker to walk into a police station to report a sexual assault. In fact, Williamson says it’s probably the last thing he or she will want to do.

“Where the justice system isn’t known or trusted, where there may be a culture of stigmatization, the whole thought of reliving a traumatic act in a foreign environment, maybe even in a different language — I would imagine it’s the last thing that anyone would want to do,” she says. “I have known cases where it hasn’t been reported for that reason.”

The aid sector’s #MeToo moment — what’s next?

One of the most high-level initiatives to combat sexual abuse and harassment of aid workers got started more than a year ago, before the Harvey Weinstein fallout and the #MeToo movement gained the profile it now has.

Lindsay Coates is one of the women leading that initiative as co-champion of the United Nation’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s group, IASC Senior Focal Points on Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Aid Workers. Her partner in the effort is UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore.

Coates and Gilmore have been tasked with helping a vast collective of UN agencies and other large international humanitarian groups to combat harassment. Coates is also the director of InterAction, which is an umbrella group of about 200 nonprofits in the US and across the globe, all of whom work with the world’s poor and vulnerable.

“Where the justice system isn’t known or trusted, where there may be a culture of stigmatization, the whole thought of reliving a traumatic act in a foreign environment, maybe even in a different language — I would imagine it’s the last thing that anyone would want to do.” — Christine Williamson, founder and director of Duty of Care International

But so far, this initiative seems to be floundering. Coates acknowledges that they have not been given any resources to carry out the work nor have they been provided any staff. She says she has been seeking funding since she was appointed co-champion more than a year ago. “We have not succeeded thus far,” she says.

And so without funding, it’s hard to see how a UN initiative aimed at tackling a problem as complex and personal — and some would say as pressing — as sexual harassment and assault can possibly succeed, especially in huge, multinational agencies with thousands of employees scattered across the globe.

And Coates and Gilmore have been candid about their frustration. “Part of our role is to be advocates for the issue,” Coates explains. “And I don’t think we can be effective as advocates for the issue if we’re not candid about how we see the response playing out.”

From the very beginning, Coates and Gilmore have met roadblocks with the UN. For instance, they conducted a “snapshot survey” asking 17 UN and non-UN agencies to provide information on what systems they had in place to prevent and respond to harassment and abuse. Only 12 even bothered to respond. Many of those that did took a long time to do it, and some of the information Coates and Gilmore got back was of poor quality.

Coates and Gilmore detailed all of this in a 2017 memo, saying the lackluster response suggests “a certain lack of concern or absence of urgency on the matters we are championing.”

When asked if the lack of response to her survey surprised her, Coates says, “I would say generally our institutions are not designed to be responsive to this problem. And so, in that sense I was not totally surprised,” adding, “There are broader cultural issues that go beyond whether or not you have a good policy or program to address sexual harassment and abuse because misogyny and inequality are topics that are deeply embedded in many institutions.”

Coates says only half of the agencies that responded to her survey could even describe exactly what kind of assistance they provide to victims of harassment and abuse. Only four said they had made efforts to train staff who could receive complaints.

These poor policies are another reason for the lack of solid data about the prevalence of sexual abuse and harassment in the sector. Furthermore, Coates says there simply are not enough incentives for survivors to report abuse and for institutions to set aside funds to save the data, and then address the issues.

“Then, you sort of layer on top of that the challenges that relate to the sensitive nature of these kinds of allegations,” she adds. “It’s hard, oftentimes, to collect data on more mundane topics. But when you start talking about collecting data on something that is as stressful and unpleasant as this, you run into other barriers.”

In describing the barriers, Coates points to organizations’ aversion to negative stories. “People just don’t like to report bad news, don’t want to talk about bad news, don’t want to talk about bad problems,” she says. “And that’s a human behavior; that’s not just this industry.”

“There are broader cultural issues that go beyond whether or not you have a good policy or program to address sexual harassment and abuse because misogyny and inequality are topics that are deeply embedded in many institutions.” —Lindsay Coates, co-champion of IASC Senior Focal Points on Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Aid Workers

And that’s something that Coates comes back to again and again during her interview; that these problems are not unique to the humanitarian sector. She praises the UN group she’s heading — the IASC — for deciding to address this issue despite the lack of data and doing so before the Weinstein story broke, and the #MeToo movement unfurled.

“That said, I think anyone who is willing to work on some of the world’s toughest problems, in some of the world’s most challenging settings, is entitled to have their dignity and autonomy and effectiveness as an aid worker protected. Full stop,” she says. “And if the institution that they work for is not taking care of that responsibility, then they need to be held accountable for that.”

When pressed to address the lack of response, the seeming lack of momentum and lack of funding for the UN initiative that she is leading, Coates acknowledged that it has been a struggle. “I do feel that a much greater commitment and higher level of energy is needed.”

In recent weeks, there has been some progress. Speak Up, a 24-hour hotline, has been launched for UN staff to confidentially report their experiences, and UN organizations have released statements about their commitment to improving hiring processes, reforming human resource structures and establishing special task forces to deal with sexual harassment training and reporting. And UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his “commitment to zero tolerance of sexual harassment.” IASC members also issued their own so-called zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse and harassment. But some in the aid sector have decidedly mixed feelings about zero tolerance policies.

Heidi Lehmann has worked in many nations as an aid worker and is now a consultant. She says policies like these often arise because donors demand them, which can create perverse incentives for humanitarian aid agencies because it makes them “equate zero tolerance to having to show zero cases,” she says. “Actually, knowing what we know about the scale of the problem of violence against aid workers by other aid workers, we should be seeing huge amounts of reporting. That is a good thing because it means that there’s something about your system that is working well enough that women have confidence to use it.”

For instance, Oxfam has been getting a lot of very bad press for sexual misconduct of some of its staff in post-quake Haiti. However, as Tufts University professor Dyan Mazurana writes, the “allegations against Oxfam staff came to light because Oxfam has one the best reporting systems in the aid industry.” Veteran aid worker Heather agrees. “They have better processes for reporting. They’re more transparent. And so their numbers are going up,” she says. “I think it would be unfortunate if this was understood to be that Oxfam has a problem, and other organizations don’t.”

Heather fears the backlash against Oxfam could have wider repercussions. “It would be extremely unfortunate now if other organizations decided, watching what’s happening to Oxfam, that [it] is not in their interests to document and record what they hear, or not in their interest to support women to report.”

As the sector moves forward and tries to address this complex problem head-on, there may be more cases reported. But the number of cases reported may not say much about the organization. After all, few cases of reported abuse could indeed indicate that an organization is thriving but it could also signify the organization has a poor reporting system or that it is not trusted by employees.

Lehmann said she discovered the importance of strong reporting systems more than 15 years ago when she was working in Sierra Leone, trying to set up a system for women and girls to report sexual violence during that country’s civil war. She was told she would not succeed and that women were never going to report.

“And what we have seen since 2001 is that in every conflict, women come forward to report and in droves. Especially when there are services that work for them. It’s going to be the same with sexual harassment and sexual violence against female aid workers,” she says.

She says female aid workers will need to decide, “How long are we going to wait for the system to work for us? What can we be doing now to push the system?” She anticipates there is going to be a lot more pressure on the sector to take the issue seriously.

“But that pressure needs to be constructive in the sense of ‘let’s sit down; let’s find ways to stop putting the responsibility on women for their own safety.’ And we know that the best systems and policies are the ones that are guided by and designed by survivors. So, let’s get survivors around the table feeding into these systems.”

Indeed, there is a growing chorus of voices calling for a wholesale transformation of the sector. A 2016 report on the status of UN women staffers shows that as pay grade levels increase, the proportion of women in those roles decrease. Women are increasingly underrepresented as you go up the ladder.

Lehmann pointed out that the UN has had nine secretary-generals since it was founded in 1945, all of them men. “There’s a lot of norms to break down within the humanitarian system in order for women to really rise up to positions of power in ways that can help shift the situation for all women in the aid field.”