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Sexual abuse during humanitarian operations still happens. What must be done to end it

A World Health Organization (WHO) logo on a glass panel
The World Health Organization (WHO) sign at its headquarters. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) is under fire after allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse surfaced last month. More than 50 women accused aid workers from several organisations of crimes that took place during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 10th Ebola outbreak.

In response, the WHO launched an independent investigation into the allegations. The investigation identified 83 alleged perpetrators, including 21 individuals who worked for the WHO during the Ebola response. It detailed failures of leadership by those responsible for the Ebola response and those in charge of addressing employee and partner malfeasance.

Unfortunately, the WHO case is just the latest in a long list of sexual exploitation scandals within the UN and humanitarian systems since the 1990s.

The United Nations and humanitarian systems, of which the WHO is a part, have sought to address this issue for decades. This has involved assessing organisational systems, developing tools, establishing policies, and providing training.

In 2010, the inter-agency standing committee, a key global humanitarian coordination mechanism, even conducted a review of member organisations to figure out how to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse. It found a lack of high-level engagement and support for this work, and inconsistent implementation of policies. A follow-up external review is currently under way.

Despite all this work, the abuse of vulnerable women and children persists.

My research and work on humanitarian assistance and sexual violence suggests that organisation and system culture can be a barrier to appropriate action. Humanitarian organisation leaders must prioritise prevention. In addition the relevant expertise must be deployed and humanitarian organisations must work closely with local women’s organisations.

Here are some key insights into how humanitarian organisations can do a better job of preventing, and responding to, sexual exploitation and abuse.

Addressing sexual violence

The survivors and their needs should be centred in reporting, investigation and response systems.

The WHO’s report referenced several incidents where protecting organisational reputation seemed to have been the focus, rather than removing perpetrators and supporting survivors. The experiences, needs and wants of victims and survivors must come first.

Reports are the tip of the iceberg and survivors face numerous barriers to disclosing exploitation and abuse. Organisations must focus on the safety and well-being of victims and survivors in a timely manner. Minimising damage to the organisation and staff mustn’t be the priority.

Strong sexual exploitation and abuse policies are essential but aren’t sufficient.

Organisations must implement policies that govern the conduct of staff and partner organisations they work with on the ground. While the commission noted that the WHO’s legal and policy framework on sexual exploitation and abuse was adequate, it also found that the WHO was “completely unprepared to deal with the risks or incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse.”

Organisations must carry out policies to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse and hold perpetrators to account.

This requires political support – from member states, humanitarian and organisational leadership, and staff – and resources. Donors should generously support efforts to build robust mechanisms to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse. Funds must also be available for assisting survivors and reparations.

More women must be included in leadership and other roles in emergency response.

The commission’s report noted that of some 2,800 staff working for the WHO in the Ebola response, over 73% were men. Over 77% of those in leadership roles were men. All of the senior leaders who were found to have failed to live up to the WHO’s zero-tolerance policy were men. The predominance of men in senior positions may contribute to an organisational culture and environment that are conducive to the harassment and the assault of women.

Hiring more women to work at every level of humanitarian response would better reflect the composition of those in need of aid. It can improve humanitarian performance, and can shift organisational culture.

Humanitarian actors must partner with and support local women’s organisations.

Local women’s organisations bring cultural and historical knowledge and have credibility within communities. They can help to lead a more effective and accountable response. They can also be powerful allies, potentially vetting and screening local staff. They can promote participation of local women and ensure that vulnerable women know about the policies of international organisations, including where and how to report.

Sexual exploitation and abuse prevention and response specialists must be involved in the design and implementation of emergency responses.

In responses to acute crises and deadly outbreaks, the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, and response to accusations, must be taken seriously and planned for.

The independent commission report noted failures to take appropriate staff vetting and training measures. The WHO appointed a few sexual exploitation and abuse focal points but it is not clear what expertise or mandate they had to act.

An important issue like sexual exploitation and abuse should not be relegated to a focal point. Particularly if it’s delegated to an individual who has other responsibilities and may lack knowledge or power to act. Doing so seems like a box-ticking exercise and signals a lack of prioritisation for the organisation.

Organisations should hire teams of sexual exploitation and abuse experts for all operations, routinely subject their programmes to review by independent experts, and learn from these evaluations.

Sexual exploitation and abuse requires an active rather than passive response. The WHO should respond to reports of abuse and exploitation as it does to reports of cases of infectious diseases like Ebola: with swift and thorough expert investigation rather than bureaucratic delay and inaction.

All humanitarian organisations should proactively examine their work to prevent and respond to these situations and focus on following best practices. Now is the time to make the rhetoric of zero tolerance a reality.

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