ANALYSIS-Women call time on sexist culture in scandal-hit aid sector

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From Oxfam staff using prostitutes in Haiti to Syrian women exploited in return for aid and harassment of women in the head offices of global charities, the humanitarian sector has been rattled by media coverage of sexual wrongdoing.

But much of what has hit the front pages in recent weeks is not news to those who work in the aid industry, and rules to clamp down on it have been introduced steadily in recent years, experts say.

So why has a major public scandal erupted now?

Aid workers and researchers pinpoint two key reasons: Newspaper revelations that have driven Britain to put pressure on agencies to act; and a popular movement that has spread on social media exposing sexual misconduct in different walks of life, starting with the film industry.

“There is nothing that makes organisations prioritise something like negative media coverage,” said Imogen Wall, a humanitarian consultant and former journalist who co-founded a Facebook group where aid workers chew over tough issues.

Anti-harassment campaigns using first the hashtag #MeToo and then also #TimesUp – devised by Hollywood celebrities – have also triggered a shift at the individual level, Wall noted.

“There has not been institutional action on this, but there also hasn’t been much self-reflection, and I think that is a really important part of what is happening now,” she said.

In the Facebook group, which has swelled to 18,000 members over the past three years, both male and female aid workers share experiences of sexual misconduct and offer advice.

But even before the latest wave of news broke, survivors like lawyer Megan Nobert – who in 2015 went public about her rape by an aid contractor in South Sudan while she was drugged – have been collecting evidence and testimonies from others.

Tellingly, Report the Abuse, the group Nobert set up for that purpose, had to close in August 2017 due to “a lack of sustainable funding streams”, its website says.


The widespread use of short-term contracts for aid workers, a donor-led emphasis on value for money, and a public view that agencies should spend as little as possible on overheads all contribute to a results-oriented model that makes it harder to detect, sanction and deter sexual wrongdoing, experts said.

Dorothea Hilhorst, a professor at the International Institute of Social Studies in Rotterdam, said aid agencies had viewed sexual misconduct within their operations as an important matter but had not seen it as urgent amid a host of competing challenges in their efforts to assist those in need.

That will now likely change, with senior management having to get involved rather than passing it to their human resources departments to deal with, she said.

But she warned against a knee-jerk reaction leading to a burst of new standards and institutions to tackle the problem.

“The sector has been working (on this) for the last 15 years and has standards that are very up-to-date. The only problem with the standards is that they are not being implemented well enough,” she said.

The academic welcomed commitments by the British and Dutch governments in the past week at separate meetings with agencies to set up independent bodies to scrutinise aid operations and ensure standards are adhered to.

Ombudsperson-style offices should be established on the ground where aid is being delivered and employ local people, Hilhorst said.

The Netherlands plans to trial this approach in a pilot country to be selected in the next two months.


While the voices of aid recipients abused overseas are rarely heard in the corridors of power in donor countries, a small number of women who have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment closer to home have been trying hard to speak out.

Alexia Pepper de Caires, who worked at Save the Children from 2011 to 2015, walked into a board meeting uninvited on Tuesday.

She demanded those in leadership positions, including international chairman Alan Parker, take responsibility for failing to protect staff from sexual misconduct at the charity’s UK arm.

“Women have a right not to be sexually harassed, abused or assaulted by their colleagues,” said Pepper de Caires, now co-leader of the Women’s Equality Party Hackney branch in London.

“They also have a right to be listened to by those in power at an organisation,” she said in a statement after the protest.

Pepper de Caires, who has previously given testimony on the behaviour of a former senior employee, was invited back to speak with board members. Meanwhile, Save the Children UK has commissioned an independent review of its workplace culture.

Pepper de Caires said there had been “a lot of fighting back and a lot of shutting down” among aid agencies in the face of the revelations about historic cases of sexual misconduct.

“We’re not seeing much form of sector-wide acceptance to use this as a real transformational point,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The British government’s emphasis on compelling agencies to publish the number of sexual misconduct cases they have investigated will not be enough to stop bad behaviour, she said.

Other measures agreed at a “safeguarding summit” organised by Britain last Monday include new standards for vetting and referencing of staff, ensuring support for whistleblowers and abuse survivors, and changing organisational culture to tackle power imbalances.

Pepper de Caires helped organise an open letter published on Thursday, signed by more than 1,100 female aid workers in 81 countries, demanding that the aid sector is reformed and the patriarchal norms that dominate it are “rooted out”.


Linda Raftree, a New York-based consultant who has worked in the aid sector for two decades, said women employees struggle to climb the ladder, partly because they often specialise in areas that are not a route to the top jobs, and may not want to go drinking or hang out in the “dude space”.

In developing-country offices of international agencies, local female staff put up with a lot because they are worried about losing prized jobs in places where women’s rights may garner little respect, she added.

Up to now, the aid sector has not been perceived as having “institutional issues” with sexism and racism, which are “manifesting themselves at every level”, Raftree said.

That includes advertising to raise funds, which tends to feature images of starving, hopeless-looking children and mothers, she noted.

Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Astrid Zweynert. Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights