Following on the heels of the sexual misconduct allegations against the Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein, #Metoo spread rapidly on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. The aid sector was no exception, and many scandals and cases of sexual assault, harassment and abuse were unfortunately exposed in our sector. Organizations where the “culture of silence” was challenged included Oxfam, Doctors without Borders, SOS Children Villages, Save the Children and the UN peace-keeping forces.
In response, in March 2018, women in 81 countries working in the development sector signed a petition urging decision-makers in humanitarian and development organizations to act. And so #Aidtoo was born.
Sexist norm systems need to be challenged
It might be easy to think that that such incidents do not happen in our organization and projects – but, while I certainly hope they do not, the possibility always exists. The events of this last year – be they in Hollywood, political corridors or peace-keeping missions – prove that sexist “culture” exists in all parts of society. It is not only about preventing the most hideous assaults from happening, assaults that only a very small percentage of men would ever even consider to do. Sexual harassment is very much about an enabling culture that gives space for sexist comments and behaviour as well as homophobia. Women and men alike need to act when cultural and workplace attitudes allow verbal assaults, sexual harassment and sexist or homophobic language and jokes to be part of the daily routine. To stop this, because of their “collective “ power position, men need to take on the responsibility of stopping other men from using this kind of language, which is often seen as “innocent” or even funny. Both women and men, need to stop playing along and take an active stand against others who use sexist and homophobic language. Sexist jargon and attitudes are reinforced by those who do not contradict them and thus contribute to the preservation of sexist norm systems.
Awareness of extreme power relations
Those of us working in development cooperation need also to be mindful of the extreme power relation (one could even say imbalance) between us as experts and “beneficiaries” or locally employed staff. The privilege and power that comes with our position can easily be abused. We often work in countries with extremely weak rule of law and where reported cases often lead to impunity and seldom support for the victim. Thus we should have zero tolerance of any sexual or homophobic harassment, lead by good example and engage in open discussions on how to ensure an inclusive culture of respect.
It’s not all doom and gloom
Having said that, it is important to acknowledge the positive developments occurring in the aid sector and the range of measures taken in many organizations which are designing new policies to ensure such incidents do not happen again. A good example is the commitment made by the ten largest international finance institutions in April 2018 . These organisations reaffirmed their commitment to preventing sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation, both within their own institutions and in their operations. They have established principles to foster a culture of respect and high standards, prevent abuse and exploitation, and provide protection for those affected, pledging to take appropriate measures and provide effective training programmes to all staff. They also commit to supporting clients in developing and implementing policies and mechanisms.
Another positive outcome of the last year is that the issue is finally out in the open, being taken seriously and increasingly being addressed. It became clear that not even those in powerful positions will be protected – a very important message for victims.
But more could be done
On the other hand, it is easy to conclude from articles and social media that a large gap still exists between expectations of change and real reform such as modified behaviour and attitudes. One example of this is evident in Swedish research where 85% of men replied that men as a group have a larger responsibility to counteract sexual assault and harassment, but only 43% said they had scrutinized their own role in behavioural change in society at large.
At the UN week in New York in September, Jane Connors, UN rights advocate for victims of sexual exploitation, reported that a UN staff survey revealed that 1/3 of respondents still lack confidence in the organization and would not report incidents for fear of being exposed to reprisal. This is just another indication that change is slow, although the UN Secretary General António Guterres says he is determined to fix that, announcing many initiatives including a 24‑hour “Speak Up” Secretariat hotline for staff to confidentially report situations of sexual harassment and seek advice.
Recent studies such as Stop the Sexual Assault against Humanitarian and Development Aid Workers give insight to the fact that victims are often blamed and sanctioned. Reporting processes within organisations can be very unclear or even non-existent and therefore victims lack confidence in the system.
More concrete actions are needed – like the interesting initiative of the UK Government and development organizations to establish a global register of aid workers to improve standards and restore trust. The basic principle is that an individual’s employment history and background checks could be recorded and made available for potential employers. The hope is that such a register, operating globally, could prevent offenders from moving around the aid sector undetected. A similar measure is already implemented by Oxfam, setting a standard requiring potential hires to provide references signed off by the HR department rather than an individual, which restricts the ability of candidates to hide poor references.
In our own backyard
In NIRAS, we have refined our zero-tolerance policy towards all form of harassments, taking actions to ensure we walk the talk. This is of course a continuous process, understanding what the policy really means and how to act in different scenarios.
With these policies and measures, NIRAS hopes to lead by example but of course we can always do more and strive to be transparent and accountable in our work. If you have thoughts on this commentary, I would love to hear from you. Let’s keep the debate going!