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Aid workers face an underreported sexual violence crisis

These South Sudanese soldiers are among those accused of rape, torture, killing and looting during an attack on aid workers. AP Photo/Bullen Chol

Aid workers face an underreported sexual violence crisis

The world’s approximately 450,000 humanitarian aid workers operate amid armed conflicts and natural disasters, often in some of the world’s most dangerous countries. They’re not immune to the poor conditions, insecurity and violence surrounding them. Indeed, 287 of them were victims of major violent attacks in 2015, according to the Aid Worker Security Database.

Yet sexual violence, which by definition includes sexual harassment and assault, against aid workers has not been well-documented, until now. A new Tufts University study I led reveals troubling rates of sexual violence against aid workers. Appallingly, we found that most acts are committed against female aid workers by their own male co-workers, and that most aid agencies do not do enough to protect aid workers from sexual violence.

Researching the problem

The Aid Worker Security Database draws data from media sources and through voluntary reporting from aid organizations. It found that attacks declined 22 percent in 2015. Most attacks against aid workers were in five countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Based on these reported incidents, shootings are the most common kind of violence against aid workers, followed by kidnappings.

Yet two recent surveys of 2,423 aid workers by the group Humanitarian Women’s Network and the nongovernmental organization Report the Abuse found that between 24 percent and 69 percent of respondents reported being victims of sexual violence while on mission. We found evidence that this problem is chronically underreported, skewing data regarding the violence aid workers experience.

Large numbers of Syrians sought food aid from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus in 2014. Reuters

Our study

Once I realized that there was almost no research on this topic, I sought answers to some basic questions. Was sexual violence against aid workers rare or widespread? Who were the perpetrators and the victims? What were agencies doing to protect aid workers or help them recover?

In 2016, Phoebe Donnelly, a Tufts doctoral student, and I devised our study to seek answers to those questions. The results were shocking and deeply disappointing.

We estimated that women make up more than 90 percent of the humanitarian aid workers who experience sexual violence. We identified female survivors from dozens of countries, including the U.S., Uganda and Pakistan. These women hold positions at every hierarchical level within the aid agencies. They are medical doctors, lawyers, social workers, nurses, nutritionists and more.

Further, we found that sexual violence against female aid workers while on mission appears widespread. While many women told us they have experienced several incidents, very few women report them. The problem remains largely unacknowledged by aid agencies and their donors. We also found that gay male aid workers are victims, as were some heterosexual men, albeit to a smaller degree than women.

The perpetrators

Perhaps our most disturbing finding was that the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence against aid workers are their own male colleagues.

The perpetrators tend to be men who are in supervisory positions or providing security. Based on our interviews and other research on environments where sexual violence is prevalent, such as the U.S. military, college campuses and United Nations peacekeeping operations, we see a clear pattern. First, sexual violence tends to crop up in sexist, homophobic workplaces – where men with chauvinist attitudes that celebrate male toughness and risk-taking hold power. It is also common where the senior management does not stop it when these abuses are brought to their attention. One interviewee stated,

“When it gets reported, people are told, ‘That is just life in the field and if you can’t hack it you should get out.’”

We learned that some perpetrators also use alcohol and date rape drugs to make their victims more vulnerable.

These displaced Iraqis sought aid at the Sewdinan 3 camp, east of Mosul. Reuters/Muhammad Hamed

How aid agencies respond

Most aid agencies we reviewed have formal policies regarding sexual harassment and assault on their books. But in practice, they fail to adequately train their staff or enforce their policies. With few exceptions – notably the British-based aid group Oxfam – the failure to address this problem is widespread.

We recorded dozens of incidents in which aid agencies blamed, fired or blacklisted victims. One interviewee remarked,

“They dismissed it as just something that was not a big deal. ‘Boys will be boys,’ ‘he made a mistake,’ ‘it is OK,’ ‘we will take care of it.’”

Interviewees reported that aid agencies often try to blame the abused women themselves for sexual violence. As one interviewee explained,

“The first question I was asked after my assault – in the middle of the night by the staff person on call for emergencies that week – was, "Were you drinking?” as if I were to blame. I had not been drinking. My bedroom door was kicked down in the middle of the night while I was sleeping by masked men wearing military attire.“

No aid agency we researched had formal policies regarding sexual violence against LGBTQ workers. What we found instead: homophobic and anti-gay sentiments. According to a gay male aid worker,

"Sexual minorities have to put up with negative or harmful comments and a hostile work environment … You have to be quiet or you can put yourself at risk.”

What can be done?

Given what appears to be a serious sexual violence problem, we recommend that aid agencies:

  1. Develop, promote and enforce policies that prevent and punish this abuse.
  2. Treat survivors fairly.
  3. Protect survivors from retribution if they report abuse.

Aid agencies are failing to prevent and address sexual violence against aid workers. They can no longer ignore the severity of the problem they have on their hands.