Does the aid industry have a sexual violence problem?

In July, Megan Nobert publicly told her story of being drugged and raped by a fellow aid worker on a UN base in South Sudan.

Her case ignited discussion about the extent of sexual violence experienced by aid workers in the field, prompting conferences within the sector, online support platforms for those affected, and new research on the subject. 

Now the Headington Institute, a leading organisation promoting and supporting the wellbeing of aid workers, is developing a research project to gauge the true scale of the problem and strengthen agency response.

The institute, which also provides psychosocial support training and services for aid workers, says there is a serious discrepancy between official industry figures and what its staff see in their daily work.

“We believe that humanitarians are experiencing sexual violence to a far greater extent than we know,” Chief Operating Officer Alicia Jones told IRIN. “We think it is a much bigger problem than currently recognised.”

A lack of statistics 

According to the Aid Worker Security Database, which bills itself as a comprehensive source for acts of violence against aid workers, just 15 incidents of sexual assault have been reported since 2005, involving 26 individuals. Of these, the majority were international aid workers.

See: IRIN’s interactive map of attacks against aid workers

But researchers believe the real figure is far higher. The Headington Institute estimates that on current data (their research incorporates infromation collected from individuals in 27 countries), two percent or more of humanitarian workers have experienced sexual violence during their career. Given estimates of more than 400,000 aid workers worldwide, they estimate sexual violence has directly affected between 4,000 and 8,000 aid workers in the last five to eight years. 

This does not include those affected by other forms of sexual harassment or exploitation.

“We know anecdotally that this is happening,” said Jones. “There’s colleague-on-colleague violence; dealing with a checkpoint where women are abused and men are forced to watch; there are supervisors who abuse positions of authority; there are stories involving contractors. We are hearing stories of all of those things.”

Those working in this area say the official numbers are low not because incidents do not occur, but because few victims are willing to report them. Nobert, who now runs a web-based campaign that collects anonymous testimonials from sexual assault survivors, said many of those who come to her are too worried about the impact on their career and reputation to say anything. 

“There is a very strong stigma, and many of those who do try and report have horrible reactions from their colleagues and agencies,” Nobert told IRIN. “One woman wrote to me the other day saying that when she tried to report a rape she was fired and asked to leave the country. There’s concern that speaking up will damage careers and mean that you are seen as less of a humanitarian. Basically, people feel they have to just suck it up.”

The consequences of such attacks, however, can be devastating. “Anxiety, depression, PTSD symptoms, nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, insomnia, self-harming, sweating, are just some of the possible symptoms,” said Anya Charnaud, specialist counsellor at The Haven, a centre in London that provides services to those who have been raped or sexually assaulted. “Emotional consequences include fear, anger, shame, sadness, disgust, guilt and blame.”

Charnaud said that depending on the individual – and the level of support they receive – the impact of sexual assault can last a lifetime.

For aid agencies, tackling sexual assault of their staff presents particular difficulties.

Taking a case forward without a police report is often less likely to result in a conviction, but many agencies work in countries where reporting sexual violence to local authorities is extremely problematic. The use of short-term contracts, the legal complexities involved in deploying staff overseas and the highly pressurised nature of aid work are all complicating factors.  

For Jones, a key problem is that many aid agencies do not have clear ways to hold offenders to account, even when the perpetrator is also an employee. “The decentralised nature of humanitarian agencies can make zero tolerance policies difficult to enforce,” she said. “Humanitarian agencies need a system that prevents perpetrators within the ranks from moving on to another agency and being rehired. But we know this happens as well.

“Sometimes a colleague may assault multiple people and everyone knows about it, but nothing happens – that person may move on. If the agency doesn’t have a way of registering what has happened then it continues.”

Charnaud said that in her experience of working with a range of sexual violence survivors, most people who are assaulted in the workplace simply resign. 

To tackle the problem of stigma, the Headington-led research is developing a methodology that allows people to report in a safe and protected way. It will also place a particular emphasis on the experiences of local, rather than expatriate, staff. They not only make up the vast majority of aid workers, but, according to Jones, they can also face additional difficulties, in particular cultural and social taboos that make reporting attacks harder. “They are the individuals least likely to report and least likely to receive support.”

Although sexual violence is not limited to the aid industry, the fact that many aid organisations consider supporting female victims of violence a core part of their mandate creates a specific imperative to root out the problem.

“We can’t be saying we are supporting women who have been affected by violence and not address it when it happens to our own staff,” Emmanuelle Lacroix, human resources services manager of the CHS Alliance, which recently held a workshop in London on the issue, told IRIN. 

The Alliance, which has welcomed the Headington initiative, believes that more research is vital to taking the issue forward. “We know there is a problem, but data is crucial,” said Lacroix. “We need it to make the case. It’s not just someone coming to cry on your shoulder. It’s the numbers to back up the idea that it’s a problem.“

According to campaigners like Nobert, sexual violence should not just be discussed and understood, it should be considered a core part of security work. 

“You can’t send us to the worst places in the world without a bit of protection. It’s no different to preparing us for bombs or shooting. It’s just as important and as dangerous.”

iw/ha/ag