HAP International releases report into sexual exploitation and abuse

from Humanitarian Accountability Partnership
Published on 30 Jun 2008
Why don't disaster survivors who have been sexually exploited or abused by aid workers complain? Because keeping quiet is normal.

HAP International releases report into Sexual Exploitation and Abuse entitled, 'To complain or not to complain: still the question.'

No one really likes to complain but we do. In a given day we might complain if our food is overcooked in a restaurant, or if our 12 o'clock train doesn't appear until 12.35. We complain when we feel that a service being provided to us has not met the standards we have come to expect. These are day-to-day common occurances that mark most of our lives. Our livelihoods are not at risk, nor are our families' futures. Can you imagine not complaining about something as serious as being sexual abused or the exploitation of your 13-year-old child? If we travel south to Kenya, we find this very scenario; fathers, mothers and children unable to voice their concern. We talk to disaster survivors and they tell us, we cannot complain. They don't mean that life is good and there is nothing to complain about, instead what they are telling us is - we cannot bring ourselves to complain, there are too many risks.

Nearly 300 disaster survivors, participating in consultation exercises in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand, have stated that while it is difficult to complain about even the basic day-to-day concerns of clean water and having enough food, it is unthinkable to complain about the most egregious forms of exploitation and abuse by aid workers. Unfortunately, we have heard this before, in West Africa (2001), Nepal (2003), Burundi (2004), and in Liberia (2006) to name just a few. This is why, in August 2007 the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) begun its consultations with refugees about their views on levels of sexual exploitation and abuse, and more specifically, their perceptions of the effectiveness of current prevention and response mechanisms. This month sees the results published in a report entitled, To complain or not to complain: still the question.

During a consultation session in Osire refugee camp in Namibia, some participants said that sexual exploitation and abuse is common and not reported because it is 'normal'. One participant stated that she would accept trading sex if someone would pay school fees for her children. Similar answers surfaced, in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where 182 refugees were consulted. The majority considered exploitation and abuse an ongoing concern with food distribution centres and schools being the labelled as 'high risk' environments. One woman summed up her situation by saying, 'when in need, dignity falls by the side. You're given a life line so you are ashamed to say no.' Another answered the question on the perceived frequency of 'exchange of sex for goods' in a question: 'If a mom wants to have clothes for her kids to go to school, what is she going to do?' These responses, along with many others, suggest that sexual exploitation and abuse is viewed as one coping mechanism by those most vulnerable. Another factor that prevents complaining is the common perception that it attaches shame to the complainant (or their family) and that it creates conflict within the community.

Most humanitarian agencies have codes of conduct, under which the purchase of sexual favours, let alone actual abuse, is strictly banned. But the toughest penalty they can impose is dismissal. However, as humanitarian agencies take steps forward in responding to sexual abuse and exploitation, complicated underlying challenges are emerging and more are likely to be uncovered as investigations into misconduct become the norm.

A similar report released last month that was conducted in southern Sudan, Haiti and Côte d'Ivoire by HAP member, Save the Children UK, supports the experiences of these participants. Together both reports paint a picture of gross violations of trust and responsibility by the very people there to protect and provide assistance.

Addressing the 'complaints deficit' on sexual exploitation and abuse cannot be sustainable unless addressed as part of a broader accountability and quality management structure. This report has produced four immediate recommendations: a prevention and response mechanism must be embedded in the agency's accountability framework; the creation of an environment of trust and meaningful partnership between agency staff and beneficiaries is essential; agencies should conduct awareness campaigns; and agencies ought to identify and mitigate the risk factors for sexual exploitation and abuse as soon as they undertake a mission.

In summary, organisations need to set aside sufficient resources and develop systematic monitoring systems in partnership with disaster survivors while making information on complaints and investigations accessible and involving aid beneficiaries to participate in the development and refining of the processes. This framework would empower them to give improvement feedback or to complain when the service is inadequate or harmful.

HAP member agencies believe that this framework is available already in the HAP Standard in Humanitarian Accountability and Quality Management, which includes a commitment to providing complaints-handling mechanisms. Agencies, which comply with the HAP Standard, demonstrate their achievements in accountability and quality management in a process developed and recognised by humanitarian peers and donors. These agencies undertake to establish and implement complaints-handling procedures that are effective, accessible and safe for intended aid beneficiaries, disaster-affected communities, agency staff, and humanitarian partners.

No one can argue against the fact that exploitation and abuse by staff is a result of an agency's failure to be accountable to its beneficiaries. The goal is to create an environment in which exploitation and abuse does not occur but if it does, that agencies are made aware of the problem, they reply swiftly and those involved feel safer. At the very least, all humanitarian agencies must remove the dilemma on whether or not to speak out against sexual exploitation and abuse so that in another five years to complain or not to complain will no longer be the question.

For more information contact:

Jamie Munn, jmunn@hapinternational.org
Katharina Samara-Wickrama, ksamara@hapinternational.org