Latest figures reflect concerning levels of sexual violence. Megan Nobert explains how the humanitarian sector can learn important lessons on how to tackle this problem
Report the Abuse – a non-profit focussed on the issue of sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers – has been collecting data since August 2015. Their data shows an alarming, widespread problem.
86% of humanitarians currently reporting to the NGO know a colleague who has experienced an act of sexual violence in the course of their work; 67% of those currently reporting are survivors themselves.1 These numbers may well represent a fraction of the real figures, as sexual violence is generally under-reported in all scenarios around the world.
Safe workplaces are essential for effective and efficient operations across both the private and public sectors. Training and responsive policies can help ensure employees feel protected from acts of sexual violence.
While comprehensive statistics on workplace sexual violence in the private sector are not available, the fact that private organisations have made significant efforts over the past decades to address the problem through prevention and response strategies, suggests that it was a major concern at a certain point, similar perhaps to the emerging information on sexual violence in the humanitarian industry.
Taking steps to prevent and address acts of sexual violence is something the humanitarian industry has not yet done in a comprehensive or systematic manner, and, as such, there are many lessons to be learned and good practices to borrow.
Organisational responses to sexual violence
Broadly speaking, what can the humanitarian sector also specifically do to address sexual violence in its workplaces? The private sector’s good practices on sexual violence prevention and response strategies provide an excellent start for humanitarian organisations:
Clear definitions for sexual violence and actions that will not be tolerated;
Training programmes for employees and senior management regarding the nature of sexual violence;
Surveys to measure the extent of sexual violence in the workplace, with the results disseminated;
Clear procedures for dealing with sexual violence complaints;
Sanctions for inappropriate behaviour;
Trained neutral investigators to look into sexual violence complaints;
Commitment from all levels of management to address the issue;
Procedures to ensure confidentiality for both the accused and complainant; and
Procedures for both formal and informal complaints.2
Pulling out different threads from this list, there are categories, in essence, of actions humanitarian organisations can take that build upon these good practices, starting with prevention, which is the key to reducing incidents of sexual violence in both private and public sector workplaces. Training and other forms of modelling show from the outset that sexual violence is unacceptable, so organisations can begin to create work environments that breed accountability. This should be done at all stages of employment.
In addition, the creation of policies to address incidents of sexual violence is essential to ensure that organisations integrate not only the prohibition of sexual violence, but also protection and care for those who experience it. Repeated statements send firm messages to potential perpetrators and provide avenues for addressing complaints when individuals come forward.
Finally, how an organisation responds to incidents of sexual violence is important because it sets the tone for how individuals will recover from their experiences. Senior management must be equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to respond to complaints of sexual violence in a manner that is sensitive and does not result in victim-blaming. Organisations must be cognisant of time-sensitive medical requirements for post-sexual violence care; response plans must reflect this need and the care that individuals will need in the months following their experience with sexual violence.
It should be noted that while what is briefly discussed above is presented in categories, sexual violence must actually be addressed more holistically. The prevention of sexual violence against humanitarian employees must be mainstreamed throughout all area of operations for the issue to be handled in a sustained and substantial manner.
Sexual violence affects both private and public sector workplaces. It is a reality in the humanitarian industry, one that must be recognised and addressed. Changing the current situation does not need to be a mystifying or daunting undertaking, because there are lessons to be learned from the private sector to guide us on the path to addressing the unique challenges of preventing and responding to incidents of sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces.
1 It should be noted that this data is only the beginning picture of the experiences of sexual violence facing humanitarian aid workers, and that the data collected by Report the Abuse is through a self-reporting survey. As more humanitarian aid workers speak about their experiences in the field, these statistics may change, however, as the first global statistics collected on the issue, these numbers are currently the best available figures.
2 Laura A. Reese and Karen E. Lindenberg, Implementing Sexual Harassment Policy: Challenges for the Public Sector Workplace (SAGE Publications, 1998), pg. 84.
Megan Nobert is a Canadian legal professional and academic specialised in international criminal law and human rights. She is also a humanitarian, having worked in in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and South Sudan on issues of humanitarian law, protection and gender-based violence. Megan is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland, as Founder and Director of Report the Abuse, a non-profit that works on the issue of sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.