On International Women's Day the Guardian published an article on an open letter from over 1,000 female aid workers. Information on the letter, background, its call to action, and a full list of signatories is published in full on SexualExploitationReport.org. The site also features a report on sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation in the aid sector.
The letter in full
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 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 three fundamental reforms to shift the patriarchal bias in aid:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
Signed by Alexia Pepper de Caires, Sarah Martin, Anne Quesney and Danielle Spencer, as well as more than 1,107 other female aid workers who live and work in 81 countries. For a full list of signatories, visit: http://www.sexualexploitationreport.org.
Photo credit: Women hold banners during a protest in the Egyptian capital Cairo against alleged sexual harassment by human rights lawyers. Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP, published by the Guardian