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Published: October 29, 2015

In the News: Sexual violence against aid workers

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Samuel Stratford graduated from the University of Manchester in 2014, where he studied Politics and International Relations, and completed a Master’s in Development Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2015. His work has largely focused on complex emergencies, culminating in his dissertation centred on the perpetuation of violence in Sudan.


Humanitarian response evaluations habitually find gender-based harassment to be a problem, with measures to prevent and respond to incidents proving inadequate. Subsequent rhetoric often fails to translate into reality and harassment continues on a day-to-day basis, both for civilians and aid workers. This article is largely centred on sexual violence against humanitarian workers, exploring the pervasive issue and potential responses.

In July, Megan Nobert, an international criminal and human rights lawyer, came forward with her story. While on an assignment in South Sudan she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a fellow humanitarian worker. Ms Nobert’s experience prompted her, in association with the International Women’s Rights Project, to launch a survey to find out more about sexual violence in the aid community. The testimonies were collected and presented in a campaign, 50 days, 50 testimonies.

Incidents range from inappropriate physical contact to the spiking of drinks, which can lead to more serious assaults. Ms Nobert told The Guardian that, like most aid workers, she ‘wasn’t given any training on how to prevent or handle acts of sexual violence’ or ‘told about any policies or procedures that might exist to handle complaints’. More recently a former Carter Center employee, Sarah Pierce, has alleged that her dismissal was linked to an incident of sexual violence three months earlier, stating that she was ‘told very clearly not to talk about it’, adding, ‘I felt like I was fired because I was raped’.

Both Nobert and Pierce’s incidents occurred in South Sudan, a country that has suffered from unprecedented levels of sexual violence in the last two years. While reporting largely focuses on large-scale atrocities, an anonymous aid worker has written about a ‘growing incidence of violence against humanitarian staff’ in the country that has left many feeling like ‘sitting ducks’. Similar to many countries where aid workers operate, reporting incidents to the local authorities in South Sudan can be problematic and victims hold out little hope of justice.

Inadequate justice mechanisms place increased responsibility upon employers to deal with perpetrators and to support victims, something that is evidently not happening. The Headington Institute is now undertaking a research project to assess the scale of the problem and to strengthen responses in the aid community. Chief Operating Officer Alicia Jones told IRIN News ‘we believe that humanitarians are experiencing sexual violence to a far greater extent than we know’, citing the need for a ‘system that prevents perpetrators from within the ranks from moving on to another agency and being rehired’.

What can be done in your organisation to help prevent sexual violence against staff? Encouraging sector-wide steps are being made, but the issue remains underreported and under investigated. Too many victims feel like they can’t come forward for fear of being stigmatised and subsequently jeopardising their careers. An important conference, hosted by CHS Alliance, has given the humanitarian sector action points to prevent and manage incidents, while MSF Consultant Muriel Volpellier spoke to The Guardian about the medical, emotional, social and legal elements of sexual assault, offering some guidelines on how to respond.

A variety of training courses are also available. Other Solutions offers a one-day training on Sexual Aggression Awareness and the Centre for Safety and Development hosts a Safety for Female Travellers Course. The merits of such courses were debated at the GISF forum in September. The discussion produced diverging views on best methods, including how valuable female-only courses are, aptly demonstrating the need for increased engagement with the topic.

It is perhaps more important that sexual violence is integrated into a global agenda aimed at improving awareness and responses. Submissions to the WHS 2016 consultations have called on the aid community to acknowledge the problem and to commit to providing solutions, including training managers on how to handle complaints and the development of accountability measures to ensure that existing legal gaps are closed (p.33). The debate has begun, but the sector needs sustained engagement to provide change and to mitigate the very real risk of sexual violence.


50 Days, 50 Testimonies, Report the Abuse, September 2015, http://reporttheabuse.org/

Aid Worker: I was Drugged and Raped by another Humanitarian in South Sudan, The Guardian, 29th July 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/jul/29/aid-worker-rape-humanitarian-south-sudan-sexual-violence

Does the Aid Industry have a Sexual Violence Problem, IRIN News, 17th September 2015, http://www.irinnews.org/report/102005/does-the-aid-industry-have-a-sexual-violence-problem

Raped by a Colleague then Fired: The aid worker who refused to keep quiet, The Guardian, 19th October 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/19/raped-by-a-colleague-then-fired-the-aid-worker-who-refused-to-keep-quiet

Restoring Humanity: Global Voices Calling for Action – Synthesis of the Consultation Process for the World Humanitarian Summit, World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat, October 2015, https://www.worldhumanitariansummit.org/bitcache/32aeda5fe90ceba891060ad51d0bd823da273cf9?vid=555986&disposition=inline&op=view

Scale of South Sudan Sexual Violence is Unprecedented – Red Cross, Reuters, 7th October 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/10/07/uk-southsudan-violence-women-idUKKCN0S11XR20151007

Secret Aid Worker: There is a new trend of sexual violence in South Sudan, The Guardian, 20th October 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/oct/20/secret-aid-worker-south-sudan-personal-attacks

Sexual Violence in the Aid Sector: What should NGOs be doing?, The Guardian, 19th October 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/oct/19/sexual-violence-aid-sector-ngo-action?CMP=share_btn_tw

Sexual Violence Management Conference gives the Humanitarian Sector Action Points to Prevent and Manage Sexual Violence, CHS Alliance, 4th September 2015, http://chsalliance.org/news-events/news/sexual-violence-management-conference


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