When helping others becomes a threat: gender-based violence in the humanitarian sector

This week, the world was stunned by revelations of sexual abuse committed by male aid workers from Oxfam against women and girls in Haiti, Chad and South Sudan. Although the news came as a surprise to many outside of the development community, it was hardly a bombshell for humanitarian workers.

From stories of child abuse involving UN peacekeepers in countries such as Haiti, Sudan and the Central African Republic to the presence of foreign troops and aid workers fuelling the trafficking of women and girls in Kosovo, a number of horrific stories have emerged over the years.

But the latest findings have had a significant impact in the wake of the #MeToo campaign and the flow of revelations of sexual harassment against women in a variety of places and industries.

Over the last few months, Equal Times has produced a series of articles on the topic of gender-based violence in the world of work, in order to raise awareness and support for an ILO Convention to address this pressing issue.

Here, we look at gender-based violence against workers in the humanitarian and development sectors, where the problem appears widespread. Recent media revelations have shed light on the kinds of abuses happening at the United Nations and in several other well-known organisations.

What emerges from these stories is a common pattern: employees who find themselves alone in remote areas under the supervision of a manager who uses his power and influence to harass and mistreat his staff.

While men sometimes suffer from this kind of abuse, the vast majority of victims/survivors remain women, while the vast majority of perpetrators are men.

Dealing with this issue means first dealing with gender inequality, a ’cowboy’ culture and the feeling of impunity that permeates the humanitarian sector and allows men to intimidate local and expatriate women. However, this not only affects employees during missions; it also happens at the headquarters of these international organisations in places like New York, Geneva and Brussels.

Talking about this issue remains extremely difficult and sensitive. Equal Times could not find any survivors willing to testify on the record. We therefore interviewed a humanitarian worker who has not been a victim of gender-based violence but who could share her experience of what it is like to work in this field. We also talked to a specialist on gender-diversity to bring you the following video.