Oxfam Chair of Trustees Caroline Thomson told CNN in a statement that Tuesday’s report made for “incredibly painful reading” for Oxfam and the wider aid sector.
“Oxfam exists to help improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people; we know we failed to protect vulnerable women in Haiti, and we accept we should have reported more clearly at the time — for that we are truly sorry,” Thomson said. “We have made improvements since 2011 but recognize we have further to go. The Committee is right to challenge all of us in the sector to do better.”
Similarly, Save the Children UK’s CEO Kevin Watkins said in a statement that the organization had “made mistakes in our own handling of historical sexual harassment complaints from staff in the UK.” He added that “although some progress has been made in creating a more respectful working culture, there is a great deal more to do. That’s why we have commissioned an independent internal review of our organizational culture.”
Tuesday’s report noted that sexual misconduct by aid workers and peacekeepers had a “documented history stretching back nearly 20 years.”
The report recounted the sexual exploitation and abuse of girls between the ages of 13 and 18 by United Nations and aid agency staff in refugee camps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2001. One victim said that “an [aid] worker made me pregnant but now he left me and is loving to another young girl.”
Victims suffered other problems including abortions and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. The devastating knock-on effects of abuse included a loss of education and skills training, reduced employment opportunities and social exclusion, the report said. The UN refugee agency announced at the time it was launching a number of measures to combat child abuse.
Meanwhile, with the Syrian civil war in its eighth year, sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers were “an entrenched feature” in the lives of women and girls there, particularly at aid distribution centers, the report said, citing a study by the UNFPA. Perpetrators around the world hailed from a broad range of jobs, ranging from guards to drivers and senior managers. They were a mix of local, national and international personnel, the inquiry found.
A “reactive, patchy and sluggish” response to reports of abuse, and a tendency for “whistleblowers rather than perpetrators” to end up feeling penalized, was blamed for the toxic environment. A “boy’s club” culture within organizations also meant sexual harassment and abuse of staff could thrive unchallenged, the report found. In recent months the #MeToo movement had helped shine a light on sexual misconduct, the report said, but the aid sector still had a long way to go to change.
The report called for improved processes around the reporting of sexual abuse, the safeguarding of whistle-blowing systems, and a change in culture at humanitarian organizations. A global register of aid workers that would “act as one barrier to sexual predators seeking to enter the profession” was suggested as a way forward.
The report also said victims should be included in the policy-making process, and called for the establishment of an independent aid ombudsman to whom victims seeking justice could appeal. One of the biggest obstacles to progress was a lack of funding, with organizations facing huge pressures to reduce overheads. The report said donors should provide funds for aid groups to implement reporting systems and safeguards against abuse.