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Sexual violence against humanitarian staff is an issue of great concern to the Headington Institute and one we engage with in a number of ways. Below are some answers to questions we are frequently asked.
How is the Headington Institute engaged with issues of sexual assault?
The Headington Institute engages with issues of sexual assault in the humanitarian context in a variety of ways:
The Headington Institute provides direct support for those who have been impacted by incidents of sexual assault and harassment.
Headington consults with organizations on psychological aspects of security as part of HEAT trainings (Hostile Environment Awareness Training). These scenario based trainings incorporate issues of gender security as part of a range of critical incident awareness training. As part of these week-long courses we incorporate a gender focused discussion about these kind of incidents. We find it’s a worst case scenario that everyone is thinking about, and one that agencies need to discuss openly.
We’re talking with senior management about the need for safer reporting mechanisms and providing training for field managers on how to manage the events that do occur.
We’re involved in research initiatives to better understand and report on issues of prevalence. We want to better understand the factors that contribute to these incidents and increase support for the survivors.
How often does sexual violence occur, in humanitarian settings?
The truth is we don't really know. Because this is massively underreported no one has an accurate read on this at the moment. Most agencies are hearing about these events internally, but survivors are choosing not to report for a variety of reasons. From our ongoing work supporting various humanitarian aid organizations, we think it's likely that 1/10 (and likely more) experience this during their lifetime and at least 1-2% of aid workers have experienced sexual assault during their humanitarian career. Given the very sensitive nature of reporting this issue, this is probably a low estimate. Still, with over 400,000 aid workers, this amounts to thousands that are impacted—far less than what gets reported formally. Further research needs to be done in order to better understand and report on this issue.
Do victims feel able to report to their managers, or to outside agencies?
In our experience, most survivors weigh the pros and cons of reporting and choose not to - either because they fear negative outcomes, or they fear no outcomes at all. The decision not to report may be related to internal issues (fear of how the agency will respond) or external issues (fear of how local authorities may respond, or even family members.)
Do they feel they will be believed?
I think most survivors fear the scrutiny that will be applied to them. Many fear that they will be blamed at least in part for what happened. The cultural stigma around this issue still exists in every country, and in some cases reporting to local authorities may be unsafe. Most organizations want to believe this isn't happening in their organization so they may inadvertently communicate this bias to the survivor in a way that makes them feel that they are in part responsible for what happened to them. Many others fear they will lose their job, or that if it is reported it will not result in satisfying outcomes.
Do agencies have zero tolerance policies towards sexual harassment, intimidation, etc?
Yes, I think so. But enforcing this is another matter, particularly across cultures. Many agencies are bound by in-country employment laws which may or may not have protections for those who experience harassment. There needs to be a secure way for individuals to report what's happening. If my manager is not taking me seriously, or is part of the problem, I need to know a secure way of finding support that bypasses this barrier. The decentralized structure of many humanitarian agencies makes it difficult to provide oversight to these matters.
Where does sexual violence occur?
Sexual violence occurs in many different contexts. At illegal checkpoints or in conflict zones, SV can be used for intimidation and as a means of communicating power or control. But we also know that unwanted advances are common both among colleagues and from supervisors or staff of partner agencies. Use of drugs (i.e. date rape drugs) is a scenario individuals should be informed about. National staff are at greater risk, because they tend to have fewer legal avenues of recourse, and the cultural stigma can be greater for them.
What needs to be done to address all this?
It's important for agencies to realize this is happening far more than is reported, and to seek to understand the contributing factors. We need safer reporting mechanisms, we also need much better training on how to manage the events that do occur - so that survivors are not left to manage this on their own. We need to "do right" by survivors by protecting their dignity, choice and confidentiality throughout the process and by providing more avenues for confidential support. We need to have much better conversations internally than we are having at the moment.
Because of the under-reporting of this, it is easy for NGOs to consider these as isolated events. Agencies are stretched by so many competing demands - many are underfunded, and many are addressing daily security threats in their region. They are prioritizing as best they can. We need to have clear avenues of support for managers dealing with this issue so that they can get sound advice on how to manage an incident well.
Headington is involved in an interagency project to better understand the contributing factors and improve agency response to these situations. Because this is a complicated issue and the cultural considerations have important safety implications, we are engaging in a coalition approach. We want any research project we do to have safeguards for those involved, and generate outcomes that are useful to agencies and individuals.
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