Sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian response

Sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian response

The sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries by humanitarian workers first came to public attention with the release of a report in February 2002 of an joint assessment mission looking into the issue. The joint mission made up of UNHCR-SCFUK personnel reported that "refugee children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation, reportedly by employees of national and international NGOs, UNHCR and other UN bodies..." [ [ IRIN 27 February 2002] ]

Humanitarian agencies responded almost immediately with measures designed to prevent further abuse, setting up an interagency task force to which had the "objective of strengthening and enhancing the protection and care of women and children in situations of humanitarian crisis and conflict.." [ [ Iain Levine and Mark Bowden: Protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises: the humanitarian community’s response, Forced Migration Review 15 October 2002, p. 20] ]

In 2008, there are signs that sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries not only is continuing but is under-reported. [ [ "No One to Turn To" Save the Children UK 2008] ]


The report was based on a field mission by the team which conducted interviews and focus groups with some 1,500 individuals including both children and adults in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

The researchers found that not only was sexual exploitation widespread, it was also perpetrated by aid workers, peacekeepers, and community leaders. Humanitarian workers traded food and relief items for sexual favors. Teachers in schools in the camps exploited children in exchange for passing grades. Medical care and medicines were given in return for sex. Some forty-two agencies and sixty-seven individuals were implicated in this behavior. Parents pressured their children to enter sexually exploitative relationships in order to secure relief items for the family. [ [ Beth Ferris: "Abuse of Power: Sexual Exploitation of Refugee Women and Girls" Brookings Institution, 2007] ]

The Response of Humanitarian Agencies

Investigation and Punishment

The allegations were investigated by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) which in October 2002 issued a report which concluded that they had found no "no widespread abuse by aid workers." In an interview with CNN in May 2002, the High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, stated: "We hardly find concrete evidence. It's very scarce." Save the Children UK, a partner in the original study, responded that "Nothing that the UN has found makes us think that we were wrong." [ [ Quoted in Asmita Naik: "The West Africa sex scandal" HPN] ]


In July 2002, the UN’s Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) adopted a plan of action which stated: Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of employment. The plan explicitly prohibited the “Exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour” The major NGHAs as well the UN agencies engaged in humanitarian response committed themselves to setting up internal structures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries. [ [ Iain Levine and Mark Bowden: Protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises: the humanitarian community’s response, Forced Migration Review 15 October 2002, p. 20] (See: [ IASC, Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse] )]

The UN Secretary-General's Bulletin

An important step towards protection from sexual exploitation was taken by the UN with the publication of the Secretary-General's Bulletin: "Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse." [ [ Secretary-General's Bulletin] ]

The purpose of the Bulletin was to draw up standards for protecting vulnerable populations, particularly women and children, from sexual exploitation and abuse. It defines sexual exploitation as

any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from sexual exploitation of another. [ [ Secretary-General's Bulletin] p.1]
It prohibits such behavior by all UN staff and by the staff of all organizations which are working in cooperative arrangements with the UN, i.e. NGHAs. In addition the Bulletin outlines procedures to be followed for preventing and for punishing sexual exploitation and abuse.

Building Safer Organisations project

In November 2004 a collaborative effort by a number of NGOs set up the Building Safer Organisations project (BSO) with the purpose of developing the capacity of NGOs "to receive and investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse brought by persons of concern—including refugees, displaced persons and local host populations." Hosted at the outset by the umbrella organization, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) this pilot project initially developed training materials. Using the materials, the BSO project carried out particpatory workshops for NGO and UN staff. As of June 2006, a total of 137 NGO staff took part in the management or investigation workshops. An independent evaluation by the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children concluded "BSO learning program has proven a valuable tool for humanitarian agencies in strengthening their capacity to receive and investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries by staff....(and) BSO learning program materials are effective and well received." [ [ Women's Commission Evaluation] ] In April 2007, BSO was move permanently to Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International where it has been merged with HAP-I's complaints unit. [ [ HAP-I Projects] ]

Lack of Complaints

Two recent studies have pointed out that disaster survivors who have been sexually exploited or abused by aid workers often do not complain. Save the Children explains the lack of complaints in that

* children and adults are not being adequately supported to speak out about the abuse against them.
* the international community is not exercising sufficiently strong leadership or managerial courage on this issue.
* (there is an) acute lack of investment in child protection by governments and donors. [ [ "No One to Turn To" Save the Children UK 2008, p. 20] ]

On 25 June, 2008 The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAP-I) released a report on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse entitled, "To complain or not to complain: still the question." This report includes detailed reports for three countries where consultations were held. It concludes that,

Sexual exploitation and abuse is a predictable result of a failure of accountability to benefi ciaries of humanitarian aid. The single most important reason for this ‘humanitarian accountability defi cit’ is the asymmetrical principal-agent relations that characterise most ‘humanitarian’ transactions, that puts the users of humanitarian assistance at a structural disadvantage in their relationship with humanitarian aid providers. [ [$file/HAP_To%20Complain%20or%20Not%20to%20Complain.pdf?openelement "To complain or not to complain: still the question." p. 52] ]



[ ICVA: Building Safer Organisations Handbook ]

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