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Published: March 3, 2017

Why should we address sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces?

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Megan Nobert is a Canadian legal professional and academic specialised in international criminal law and human rights. She is also a humanitarian, having worked in in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and South Sudan on issues of humanitarian law, protection and gender-based violence. Megan is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland, as Founder and Director of Report the Abuse, the first global NGO to work solely on the issue of sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.


Emergency call: someone in a field site under your responsibility has been sexually assaulted. Do you know how to respond? Does your organisation have an internal response mechanism to address this incident? How do you protect your other staff? How do you support the survivor?

Many aid workers would not know how to answer these questions. As a study by Report the Abuse shows, only 16% of humanitarian organisations have even a single mention of sexual violence as a risk to their employees within their organisation’s policy and procedural documents, let alone a comprehensive, sensitive or survivor-centred response mechanism.

The issue of sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces – which ranges from sexual harassment to rape – has been quietly discussed for years, primarily amongst female humanitarian aid workers. It reached a larger consciousness nearly two years ago, which is leading to discussions at the global humanitarian level about how organisations should address the problem. First, though, we need to grapple with a strong theme coming from this building momentum: why do we need to address sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers?

Report the Abuse has been collecting data on how humanitarian aid workers are experiencing sexual violence since 19 August 2015, and the results show a clear and pervasive problem: 86% of humanitarians know a colleague who has experienced an act of sexual violence in the course of their work; 67% are survivors themselves.

As of publication, 79 incidents of sexual violence have been reported to Report the Abuse – 51 of these occurring between 2010-2016 – a number that likely represents a fraction of the reality, as we know that sexual violence is underreported in both conflict and non-conflict situations. As more humanitarian aid workers speak about their experiences in the field, these statistics may change. However, as the first global statistics collected on the issue, these numbers are the best available figures and illustrate the growing depth of the problem.

At this point, the data strongly suggests that sexual violence occurs in humanitarian workplaces – whether the perpetrator is a colleague or a member of the local community – and is a particular risk for female humanitarian aid workers, though both men and women can be survivors of sexual violence. Humanitarian organisations must take action to address the issue. Organisations owe this duty of care to their staff, which is one the strongest reasons for humanitarian organisations to have effective and efficient prevention and response strategies.

In the wake of Steve Dennis v. NRC, more organisations are exploring how to address the security issues facing their operations and staff, and what their obligations are towards their employees. This discussion must include sexual violence.

There has been previous analysis done into what duty of care humanitarian organisations should provide their staff; however, the changing landscape of more frequent short-term contracts, localisation, and a growing trend of placing expatriate staff under national contracts means that more work is needed. Furthermore, conspicuously, no consideration has been previously put into the duty of care required in the event of an incident of sexual violence, which requires a different approach due to the personal and long-lasting trauma that can be associated with such an event.

This is a particular concern that Report the Abuse will be exploring over the next two years while it develops a series of good practice tools to help humanitarian organisations better understand how to prevent and respond to sexual violence against its employees appropriately, sensitively and with a survivor-centred approach. Report the Abuse cannot do it alone, though.

Addressing sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces in a comprehensive fashion will take time, commitment and investment from humanitarian organisations. The challenge of tackling this problem, however, cannot be seen as a reason to avoid talking about it. As InterAction noted, when working to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) perpetrated against local populations by aid staff, ‘with the health and safety of beneficiaries, your funding and reputation at stake, the cost of not properly preventing and responding to SEA allegations is much greater than the staff time and resources required to do so.’

The same principle applies to addressing sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers. Our reputations, our programming, and the human cost of not taking this problem seriously are far too high to continue to neglect or ignore it. Go to your organisations, look at your trainings and your policies. Reflect on where your problem areas are. If you need support, Report the Abuse can help you begin to fill these gaps.

Sources and Further Reading

Report the Abuse, undated, http://reporttheabuse.org/report-your-experience/

Survey Data, Report the Abuse, undated, http://reporttheabuse.org/research/survey-data/

Report Your Experience, Report the Abuse, undated, http://reporttheabuse.org/report-your-experience/

Sexual assault and harassment in the aid sector: Survivor stories, Sophie Edwards, Devex, 7 February 2017, https://www.devex.com/news/sexual-assault-and-harassment-in-the-aid-sector-survivor-stories-89429

Briefing Paper: Sexual Assault Against Humanitarian and Development Aid Workers, Phoebe Donnelly and Dyan Mazurana, Feinstein International Center, February 2017, http://fic.tufts.edu/publication-item/briefing-paper-sexual-assault-against-humanitarian-and-development-aid-workers/

Safety and Security Concerns: Sexual Violence against Humanitarian Aid Workers, Megan Nobert, ATHA, 25 January 2017, http://www.atha.se/blog/safety-and-security-concerns-sexual-violence-against-humanitarian-aid-workers

Prevention, Policy and Procedure Checklist, Report the Abuse, August 2016, http://reporttheabuse.org/take-action/preventing-sexual-violence/

Dennis vs Norwegian Refugee Council: implications for duty of care, Kelsey Hoppe and Christine Williamson, HPN-ODI, 18 April 2016, http://odihpn.org/blog/dennis-vs-norwegian-refugee-council-implications-for-duty-of-care/

Secret aid worker: sexual harassment and discrimination in the industry, The Guardian, 29 July 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/jul/29/secret-aid-worker-sexual-harassment-and-discrimination

Gender Based Violence & the Humanitarian Community, Linda Wagener, Headington Institute, 20 December 2011, http://www.headington-institute.org/files/gbv-and-the-humanitarian-community_edited_90456.pdf

Can you get sued? Legal liability of international humanitarian aid organisations towards their staff, Edward Kemp and Maarten Merkelbach, Security Management Initiative, 2011, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/resource/can-you-get-sued-legal-liability-of-international-humanitarian-aid-organisations-towards-their-staff/

InterAction Step by Step Guide to Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, Interaction, June 2010, https://www.interaction.org/sites/default/files/2010.6 – Step by Step Guide – Comments Version.pdf


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