While the media has focused a lot on institutional sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, just how wide spread this activity is in other organisations in a position of care for the vulnerable has not yet been reported widely. However, in July of this year a UN report came out presenting shocking revelations of the endemic nature of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by members of aid agencies and peacekeepers throughout the world perpetrated on the most vulnerable – the recipients of their aid and care.
That aid agencies and peacekeepers have been involved in such activities should not be a surprise. The 2010 film, ‘The Whistleblower,” first made me aware that such exploitation takes place. The film was inspired by the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska police officer who was recruited as a UN peacekeeper for DynCorp International in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999. It tells the story of how Bolkivac, while there, discovered a sex trafficking ring serving (and facilitated by) DynCorp employees, with the UN’s peacekeeping force turning a blind eye. Bolkovac was fired and forced out of the country after attempting to shut down the ring, but took her story to the BBC News in the UK and won a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit against DynCorp.
The July, 2018, UN report, suggests that sexual exploitation and abuse is endemic across the international aid sector, predominantly humanitarian provision, and a wide range of organisations have been implicated.
The term ‘sexual exploitation and abuse’ could apply to a wide range of acts including: rape, sexual assault, other forms of sexual violence, transactional sex, solicitation of transactional sex, exploitative relationship, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse. The different kinds of sexual exploitation and abuse against children are listed as: child rape, sexual assault, solicitation of child prostitution, trafficking for sexual exploitation and abuse. From the statistics available and the research available, this is abuse that is largely perpetrated by men. Victims were mainly girls aged 13 and 18 years, who reported far-reaching consequences of the abuse on their lives: pregnancies, abortions, teenage motherhood, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, lost educational, skills-training and employment opportunities and social exclusion.
The 67 allegations documented by a 2002 West Africa assessment report listed 40 aid agencies and 9 peacekeeping battalions across three countries in West Africa. The research conducted for Save the Children’s 2008 report revealed that in emergency contexts in South Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti, a wide range of organisations were implicated in abuse.
Fieldwork revealed cases of abuse associated with a sum total of 23 humanitarian, peacekeeping and security organisations. These include civil humanitarian agencies such as those delivering food and nutritional assistance, care, education and health services, reconstruction, shelter, training, and livelihood support, as well as military actors providing peace and security services.
It also showed that a broad spectrum of different types of aid workers and peacekeepers were implicated in the abuse. For example, staff at every level, from guards and drivers to senior managers, were identified as having been involved. Participants also implicated a mix of local, national and international personnel, including staff described as ‘black,’ ‘white,’ ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ people.
No corner of the aid sector appears to be immune. The problem is a collective one. Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children UK said, “this is not the occasional bad apple that we are dealing with here; it is a structural and systemic problem that we have to deal with through proper integration.” Watkins further said, “Although the problem appears pervasive, the exact scale of Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector is currently impossible to define. We heard repeatedly that there is under-reporting, based both on research and anecdotal evidence.”
The UN Secretary General acknowledged in his 2017 Special Measures report on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, “we feel certain that not all cases are reported”. Practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the “tip of the iceberg”.
In terms of the impact, ‘Rape Crisis and Equality Now’ stated that in addition to the “degrading, harmful and traumatic experience in itself,” sexual exploitation and abuse contributes to a context that is conducive to the objectification and exploitation of women and girls, where sexual violence is condoned and excused. It also forms part of the framing of sex-based inequality, reducing women’s and girls’ rights in multiple contexts and contributing to and reinforcing the environment for further abuse and discrimination against them.
The UN report states that there is little understanding of how sexual exploitation and abuse impact the effectiveness of aid programmes, and the ability of aid organisations to deliver support to beneficiary communities. A senior and experienced specialist in the aid sector told investigators in confidence that the way the communities being served view aid agencies is everything… “we fail at almost all levels above our programmes to quantify the impact this has on the quality of our programmes, or our ability to actually deliver them to their intended audiences.”
The impact of the sexual abuse and exploitation of intended beneficiaries of aid—relief aid in particular—obviously and clearly falls directly upon the victims and survivors of that abuse. In the vast majority of cases, such people will be desperate, already traumatised by disaster, conflict, loss and separation from family and community, and suffering from deprivation of the basic physical necessities. In many forced displacement scenarios, it seems criminal exploiters swiftly target new refugee encampments.
The distribution of shelter, food, water, etc. to vulnerable people can provide potential abusers with powerful levers of influence under the imprimatur of an international aid organisation. In addition to the actual abuse is the impact on the relationship between the beneficiary community and the aid organisations trying to deliver effective assistance
(presumably including dignified and secure facilities for women and girls and protection from trafficking); the impact of abuse-related loss of trust and confidence on aid effectiveness (let alone other aid strategy objectives) has not been even considered, let alone assessed, as far as UN investigators are concerned.
Collective ineffectiveness in combating sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers inevitably damages and constrains the aid sector as a whole. I am sure, of course, that the vast majority of aid sector workers are innocent of such conduct. However, everyone is tainted by such scandals and the inability, as yet, to have confidence in the systems to deal with, let alone prevent, such behaviours.
In recent months, the MeToo movement has helped bring to light the extent to which sexual abuse pervades workplaces and society at large. The international aid sector is not exempt, and we should not expect it to be. But sexual exploitation and abuse is ultimately an abuse of power and the aid sector is one of extreme power imbalance. Those receiving aid in humanitarian crisis situations are some of the most vulnerable and disempowered people in the world. The sector as a whole needs to confront the fact that, although the exact scale remains unknown, sexual exploitation and abuse is happening and it is happening across organisations, countries and institutions. It is endemic, and it has been for a long time.