Agencies move to protect vulnerable from sex abuse

Relief agencies have moved to protect women and children from sexual exploitation and abuse during humanitarian operations in drought-stricken Southern Africa.

About 13 million people are threatened with starvation in six countries in the region. Among the most vulnerable are women and children, who also run the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse by those involved in the supply and distribution of relief aid.

In February, a joint assessment by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children Fund-UK (SCF), revealed that refugee children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had been subjected to sexual abuse. They had been exploited by those in positions of authority - employees of national and international NGOs, UN agencies, fellow refugees, and security forces of the host countries.

The report stated that the "exploiters appear to be able to pay for sex when and with whom they want, and to do so with impunity, since the very people they exploit are not able to complain about their situation for fear of their source of basic survival being removed".

The West Africa report shook the humanitarian community, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered further investigations and a plan for remedial action.

As a result, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) - whose members include UN agencies and humanitarian and development partners - formed a task force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises. The task force is co-chaired by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A plan of action to create an environment free of sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises was developed in early July.

The southern African crisis, currently one of the largest in the world, is regarded as the litmus test for the success of the plan, said UNICEF regional child protection advisor, Hamish Young.

"With the current humanitarian operation in Southern Africa going to scale, there is an urgent need to address the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse. The issue is of even greater importance and urgency when set against the underlying crisis of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. In the six affected countries, HIV prevalence ranges from 13 percent (Mozambique) up to 33.4 percent (Swaziland)," Young said.

UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and SCF, have begun to work towards preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in the context of Southern Africa's humanitarian crisis.

A "training of trainers workshop" was held in Malawi in August. The 45 participants included representatives from government, the UN, NGOs, human rights organisations, transporters, the army, police, and village chiefs.

Similar workshops were also conducted in Zimbabwe and Swaziland this week. Mozambique and Lesotho are scheduled to follow next week, and Zambia shortly afterwards.

Amy Horton, WFP emergency officer in Malawi, told IRIN that humanitarian workers had "a responsibility to beneficiaries to make sure we provide the assistance in a respectful manner, it goes back to [the dictum] do no harm". In addition, all WFP partners are required to sign a code of conduct.

"This [programme] is trying to mitigate the abuse of power in the humanitarian context. We are going to stimulate awareness of the IASC code of conduct, we're going to conduct sensitisation and awareness campaigns," Horton said.

A radio campaign was also in the pipeline.

"The idea is to train a core team or cadre of trainers from each country, from each of the main organisations involved in the supply and distribution of relief aid, and also commercial operators, particularly the transport companies, because we know from experience that truckers have used relief food to buy sex," Young said.

The core team of trainers would ensure that every agency and organisation "gets their own house in order, in terms of reporting and monitoring procedures and means of dealing with cases". They would also conduct ongoing training in relation to protection and prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation, as "you always have a large increase and turnover of staff", particularly in humanitarian responses such as the Southern Africa emergency operation.

Young told IRIN that sexual exploitation in the humanitarian context was nothing new. "We all say it starts with the report on West Africa, but this has been going on for donkeys' years. It's just that West Africa forced us to pull our heads out of the sand. And the first big humanitarian operation to come after that was Southern Africa. So what we've done is to develop a pilot training package around the IASC recommendations, and also thrown in a lot of focus on HIV/AIDS because of the context in Southern Africa," he said.

In desperate situations, desperate people "offer transactional sex to try and obtain preferential treatment in the distribution of supplies and services", Young explained.

There was also a lot of casual employment from within the beneficiary community in the distribution of aid, "and often there's a lot of transactional sex to get preferential treatment there". Communities needed to be trained to monitor themselves, Young said.

Humanitarian workers had to be trained to understand that "they must say no, I am not interested in what you're offering" when offered sex for aid, he added.

On the part of the UN family and its partners, it was a matter of "enforcing what's already there, we have a code of conduct".

"In most of these countries prostitution is illegal. When a worker takes food and uses it to pay for sex it's an illegal act. Firstly, it's theft, and secondly, purchasing sex is illegal and sometimes the age of consent is questionable," Young said.

Listed below are the core principles of the IASC code of conduct:

* Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of employment.
* Sexual activity with children (persons under the age of 18) is prohibited regardless of the age of majority or age of consent locally. Mistaken belief in the age of a child is not a defense.
* Exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behavior is prohibited. This includes exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries.
* Sexual relationship between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries are strongly discouraged since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics. Such relationships undermine the credibility and integrity of humanitarian aid work.
* Where a humanitarian worker develops concerns or suspicions regarding sexual abuse or exploitation by a fellow worker, whether in the same agency or not, s/he must report such concerns via established agency reporting mechanisms.
* Humanitarian workers are obliged to create and maintain an environment that prevents sexual exploitation and abuse and promotes the implementation of their code of conduct. Managers at all levels have particular responsibility to support and develop systems which maintain this environment.