Sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers is happening in the aid sector and it has been happening for a long time. Sexual violence, exploitation and abuse against women and girls is endemic in many developing countries, especially where there is conflict and forced displacement, as we have found in previous work.1 Forms of systematic criminal sexual exploitation, for example in the form of human trafficking into prostitution, is also a common feature of such environments. Many aid and relief agencies, DFID included, have policies and programmes aimed at tackling all these challenges. Therefore, it is particularly horrifying to find evidence of personnel from the aid and security sectors perpetrating these abuses rather than combating them. Reports have regularly shown this kind of sexual exploitation and abuse being perpetrated across different countries, organisations and institutions, principally in humanitarian crises. At its core, sexual exploitation and abuse is an abuse of power and the power imbalance is predominantly, although not exclusively, men abusing women and girls. Due to confirmed under-reporting, the exact scale is currently impossible to define, but practitioners suspect that those cases which have come to light are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
The lack of information must not be a cause for inaction. In addition to the abuse of aid beneficiaries, there is also evidence of significant numbers of cases of sexual harassment and abuse within aid organisations, including where the resulting proceedings have been conducted very poorly. There seems to be a common thread in this apparent inability of the aid sector to deal well with allegations, complaints and cases involving sexual abuse. There seems to be a strong tendency for victims and whistleblowers, rather than perpetrators, to end up feeling penalised.
The aid sector, collectively, has been aware of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel for years, but the attention that it has given to the problem has not matched the challenge. Repeatedly, reports of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and/ or peacekeepers have emerged, the sector has reacted, but then the focus has faded.
This episodic response has led to the existence of safeguarding policies and procedures that have never been effectively implemented. This has meant that where worthwhile safeguarding measures have been developed, they have never been adequately funded.
A reactive, cyclical approach, driven by concern for reputational management has not, and will never, bring about meaningful change.
The sector’s movement on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in the past few months is welcome but it is also long overdue. We are yet to be reassured that the momentum will be maintained. From DFID, we expect to see a high level of sustained engagement in looking after victims and survivors, equipping aid beneficiaries with more knowledge and confidence about their rights, pursuing perpetrators and preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, following the International Safeguarding Conference in October. To display this commitment and ensure progress, DFID should report annually on the safeguarding performance of the sector, including the number and distribution of cases, the resources committed, and DFID’s own actions and contributions to improvement. Such a report should include space for the voices of victims and survivors to be heard.