More than a thousand women condemn sexual misconduct in international aid sector

Indigenous rights activists demand an end to violence against women and honor more than 1,100 Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing in Canada in the past three decades during a vigil held on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, on October 4, 2017. Photo: Obert Madondo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Obert Madondo |  | Mar 9, 2018

This week, more than 1,100 women living and working within the international aid sector in 81 countries signed an open letter demanding that women be “taken seriously by men and decision makers in humanitarian and development organizations”. The letter comes in the wake of revelations of sexual harassment against women in the film industry as well as recent media reports of sexual violence and abuse perpetrated against disadvantaged women and girls in the Global South by privileged western men working in the international aid industry. The letter, which was “also informed by many other women who chose to remain anonymous,” proposes 3 fundamental reforms aimed at dismantling the patriarchal norms rooted in the sector.

Below is the full text of the letter:

Senior Managers, CEOs and Board Members of Humanitarian and Development Organisations, ​

Violence Against Women and Girls is endemic across all societies. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have exposed the level of sexual harassment experienced by women in the film industry, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the work of women acting in solidarity with their sisters around the world, in recent weeks it has become increasingly apparent that the international aid sector has its own shortcomings. We, the undersigned, demand that the aid sector is reformed and the patriarchal norms which dominate it are rooted out.

We stand together to speak out about the violence and abuse perpetrated against women and girls by men who work within charities. We stand together because our voices are stronger in unison and have often not been heard when we have stood alone. We acknowledge that not all women have the same amount of power – race, class, sexual orientation, economic realities and other forms of discrimination and oppression all play a part in women’s ability to to be heard. Patriarchy impacts women and girls from the global South and women of colour hardest. We acknowledge that these women are most affected and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by aid workers, yet are also the least likely to be heard and least likely to be able to sign on to support this letter.

It is the behaviour of these men, not our complaint of their behaviour, which damages the sector’s reputation and public trust. The women who are speaking out now hope to make international aid a better place for the women who work within it, and for those whose rights we campaign and advocate for. We speak out now in the hopes that in future, the blame for the abuse or for “not doing enough” to stop the abuse will no longer fall on women. The twisted logic of blaming women and girls for the violence and abuse they experience has to end and it is everyone’s responsibility to end it – within the aid sector and beyond.

We are gravely concerned that the culture of silence, intimidation and abuse will continue as soon as the media spotlight on this issue begins to dim. Trust in our sector can only be restored when we ask and answer the difficult questions and openly challenge those who exploit and hide behind the good work of many. We encourage everyone who has seen issues which are contrary to the principles of equality and justice, which are the bedrock of our work, to step forward and speak out and we ask aid agencies to support them.

We ask for 3 fundamental reforms to shift the patriarchal bias in aid:

1. Trust women: organisations need to take action as soon as women report sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse; allegations must be treated with priority and urgency in their investigation; the subject of a complaint of this nature must be immediately suspended or removed from their position of power and reach of vulnerable women and girls.

2. Listen: foster a culture where whistleblowing is welcome and safe – the way to win back trust of donors, the public and the communities we work with is to be honest about abuses of power and learn from disclosures. Sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse should no longer have to be discussed in hushed tones in our offices.

3. Deeds not words: We need effective leadership, commitment to action and access to resources. It is not enough to develop new policies which are never implemented or funded – with the right tools we can end impunity at all levels in the sector.

(Although this letter focuses on women and girls as the survivors of male perpetrated sexual violence, we acknowledge that boys and men experience sexual harassment and exploitation too. We further acknowledge that there are women perpetrators and certainly women who are complicit. However, the scale of the abuse faced by women and girls is overwhelming and based on global gender inequality. Emphasis does not mean exclusion, and although male survivors experience this issue less than women and girls and for different reasons, we stand in solidarity with male survivors as well.)

See the full list of signatories.

Sexual violence against disadvantaged women and girls in the Global South, perpetrated by mostly privileged western men, is not the only toxic outcome of aid from rich western countries to developing countries. In the aftermath of the shocking revelations that employees of the British charity Oxfam had sexually exploited vulnerable Haitian women and girls, Jovenel Moïse, the president of Haiti, highlighted some of the inconvenient truths about foreign aid. He wrote in the Washington Post:

The general paradigm of aid and power in Haiti, as elsewhere in the developing world, is not a balanced one. Our government is often sidestepped by aid agencies that refuse oversight as they pursue their own development and humanitarian agendas in our country. The level and direction of aid, and its implementation, is controlled by donor forces with little or no input from Haiti’s government or other local stakeholders.

Under this current setup, billions of dollars in foreign aid are being wasted on development projects — both here and around the world — that are overpriced and inefficiently managed.

In the article, “The Truth for Trudeau: We have been ripping off Africa for decades”, published by the Globe and Mail in February 2017, Gerald Caplan wrote:

America and the rest of the rich world have actually been ripping off Africa for the past 700 years, ever since the Portuguese began the slave trade, all the while insisting that Africa has been the beneficiary of this relentless exploitation.

Importantly, Caplan, an African scholar and author of the book, The Betrayal of Africa, alluded to “mass ignorance in the West, cultivated by both elites and aid agencies”. Canada and the rich world have indeed been “ripping off Africa for decades”. Canada and the rich world have indeed been “ripping off Africa for decades”. A 2013 report from the African Development Bank Group stated:

For over 30 years (1980-2009), close to US $1.4 trillion were drained out of Africa. Most of those capital flights were illegal in nature and were due to corruption, kickbacks, tax evasion, criminal activities, transactions of certain contraband goods, and other illicit business activities across borders.

According to the report, “Honest Accounts 2017: How the world profits from Africa’s wealth“, published by a coalition of UK and African organisations:

$134 billion entered the continent this year, mainly in the form of loans, foreign investment and aid. However, some $192 billion was taken out, mainly in profits made by foreign companies, tax dodging and the costs of adapting to climate change. Africa was found to suffer a net deficit of $58 billion a year.

In other words, the current systems of development aid mostly benefit donor countries. It’s time for an #AidToo or #ReformAid global movement.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian ProgressiveZimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad