Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector Contents

10The nature and scale of the problem

The nature of the harassment and abuse

198.One of the first pieces of research into sexual harassment and abuse of aid workers comes from the Humanitarian Women’s Network, who in 2015 conducted a survey of over 1,000 female aid workers from over 70 organizations worldwide. They documented experiences of discrimination, harassment and sexual violence.332 Report the Abuse, a campaign NGO, also began collecting the experiences of humanitarian aid workers of sexual violence in 2015. In 2017 they published a report presenting the data that had been compiled over two years, based on the responses of around 1000 aid workers (more than 1000 responded to the survey, but not all were able to complete their reports).333 The different kinds of sexual harassment and abuse that they documented includes: unwanted sexual comments, unwanted sexual touching, aggressive sexual behaviour, attempted sexual assault, sexual assault, rape and ‘other’. The report states that “although the majority were noted as being on the sexual harassment scale, not an insignificant 13% were reported as being rape”.334

The victims and survivors

199.As with sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries, amongst aid workers the victims and survivors of sexual harassment and abuse are predominantly female. Based on their research into sexual abuse against humanitarian aid workers, Professor Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly of Tufts University told the Committee:

The vast majority of humanitarian aid victims/survivors of sexual harassment and assault are women. Women aid workers of different nationalities and across a range of educational, experience, and authority levels within missions reported sexual harassment and assault.335

Report the Abuse notes that 89% of the respondents who reported sexual violence are female.336

200.According to Professor Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) aid workers have reported experiencing “sexual identity harassment, blackmail, threats, and assaults”.337 Report the Abuse note that 20% of their respondents identified as LGBTI.338

The perpetrators

201.Again, as with sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries, the perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse against aid workers are predominantly men.339 Across the reports of harassment and abuse collected by Report the Abuse, 92% of perpetrators were men.340

202.Not all of the perpetrators, however, are aid workers. Professor Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly told us that the majority of perpetrators are:

working in the aid industry, often those in supervisory or higher-level positions compared with their victims, or men employed by aid agencies as security providers.341

But, they can also be “from armed forces and groups and civilians within the area where the aid workers are operating.”342

The scale of harassment and abuse

203.The scale of harassment and abuse is extremely difficult to judge, due to the limited data available. However, amongst those who have responded to the surveys of the Humanitarian Women’s Network and Report the Abuse, the problem is significant. Report the Abuse say that of their respondents:

87% noted that they knew a colleague who had experienced sexual violence in the course of their humanitarian work. 41% reported having witnessed a sexual violence incident against a colleague, and 72% of those reporting were survivors of sexual violence.343

According to the Humanitarian Women’s Network, their survey revealed that:

nearly 50 per cent of women respondents report having being touched in an unwanted way by a male colleague in the workplace and even more are subject to persistent sexual advances from their colleagues.344

204.Danielle Spencer, an aid worker and author of “Cowboys and Conquering Kings”, a report based on the testimonies of 29 aid workers about abuse in the aid sector, has said that such survey results are subject to selection bias, but still provide valuable insight. Commenting on earlier survey results from Report the Abuse, she wrote:

As this is a self-reporting survey, there is an inherent bias associated with the results, but this is the first data to be released of its kind and is indicative of the scale of the problem of SEA perpetrated against humanitarian workers.345

205.We note that the demographic of those responding to the surveys is significantly skewed towards expatriate staff: 96% of individuals responding to Report the Abuse were expatriates346 and 83% of those who responded to the Humanitarian Women’s Network survey were international humanitarian workers.347 This leaves the experiences of national, i.e. locally-engaged aid staff largely unknown and, as Christian Aid points out, raises questions about the lack of reporting.348


332 Humanitarian Women’s Network (SEA0057)

334 Ibid

335 Professor Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly (SEA0008)

337 Professor Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly (SEA0008)

339 Professor Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly (SEA0008)

341 Professor Dyan Mazurana and Phoebe Donnelly (SEA0008)

342 Ibid

347 Humanitarian Women’s Network, ‘Survey data’, accessed 25 July 2018

348 Christian Aid (SEA0031)




Published: 31 July 2018