Inhumane humanitarian aid: sexual assault allegations grip Oxfam

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Haiti, 2010. The situation was bleak for most inhabitants – around 220,000 people dead, with millions more injured or affected by the devastating earthquake that occurred on the 12th of January. The country was rife with economic hardships, leaving Haitians in a state of total despair. As one would imagine, aid workers and humanitarian relief started flowing in as the international community reached out to fellow humans in need. Amongst the organisations that stationed themselves in Haiti was Oxfam – an association comprising of 19 independent charitable organisations from all over the world. Today, 8 years later, this NGO is working hard to power through the sex scandals that have plagued it.

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In 2011, allegations that Oxfam aid workers were organising orgies with prostitutes on Haitian property paid for by the organisation itself were made. According to an article published on Sky News earlier this month, four years after the scandal was unearthed, Helen Evans, the Head of Safeguarding, raised further concerns about the sexual misconduct targeting vulnerable women: “There was… a woman being coerced to have sex in a humanitarian response by another aid worker, another case where a woman had been coerced in exchange for aid and another one where it had come to our attention where a member of staff had been struck off for sexual abuse and hadn’t disclosed that, and we were then concerned about what he might be doing, and that was three allegations in one day.” Haiti is not the exception to the rule, unfortunately. The organisation is also said to have raped women in South Sudan, as well as orchestrated sex parties during relief missions in Chad in 2006.

This depicts a bleak reality indeed – a reality wherein the people entrusted with the wellbeing of people who have already been through so much are the ones causing most damage to defenceless people in areas of extreme poverty. According to an article published on Deutsche Welle a few days ago, “crisis relief workers abusing their power aren’t a new phenomenon”. Medica Mondiale, a women’s rights NGO in Germany took upon itself the role of rehabilitating distressed Bosnian women following the Balkan conflict in the late nineties to early noughties. According to the Director of International Programs, Ara Stielau, within the organisation itself, the employment of prostitutes during relief missions as well as other instances of sexual misconduct were considered to be a “trivial offence and private pleasure”. In fact, the association’s executive director, notoriously asserted that he “can’t watch what [his] men are doing between the sheets.”

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Most humanitarian organisations have been made aware of these scandals and have thus introduced numerous codes of conduct to be abided by on the place of work, in an attempt to protect the vulnerable women who have already been through so much due to natural disasters within their country. However, cases such as the Oxfam prostitution allegations have revealed gaps in the administration of associations for humanitarian intervention. United Nations Peacekeepers have also been known to engage in what has been termed ‘transactional sex’ in Haiti, amongst other countries. This refers to instances wherein women are bribed with goods, in exchange for sex. Considering the dire conditions these women are living in, it is easy to understand why such an arrangement would attract them.

According to a draft study done by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, women from rural areas admitted that the main reasons why they engaged in sexual transactions were “hunger, lack of shelter, baby care items, medication, and household items”, whereas better off women in more urbanised areas were offered “church shoes, cell phones, laptops and perfume, as well as money”. This study also revealed that between 2008 and 2013, 480 allegations about sexual transactions were made, with a third of the cases involving minors. Another interesting thing to note is the fact that, out of the 231 women surveyed by the UN, none of them were aware of the organisation’s hotline to report mistreatment, thus increasing their sense of helplessness in a reality where the very people sent to help them are the ones inflicting more psychological as well as physical pain.

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The European Union issued a statement about the Haitian sex scandal, in which it threatened to withdraw funding if humanitarian aid organisations did not meet certain ethical standards and act in a morally justified way. For the work done in Haiti in 2011, Oxfam received €1.7m from the EU. The Union also expressed its concerns regarding the fact that Oxfam attempted to cover up the scandal by allowing people to resign in a dignified manner, thus allowing them to find other jobs within the same profession, to further exploit vulnerable people in disaster areas. This is a fear shared by many, as the legitimacy of relief aid organisations is being called into question. Unfortunately, despite the noble work of the vast majority of aid workers, it is the deplorable few who bring such associations to their demise.

Although this is arguably not an issue that falls explicitly under EU affairs, JEF Malta strives to present a global perspective on matters of current relevance. Following campaigns such as #MeToo and the Time’s Up Movement, the subject of violence and abuse perpetrated against women, especially women in vulnerable conditions, has been revived. This article has been written in light of the interactive workshop being organised next Saturday, 24th February, on gender issues in politics, business, and society.

Written by

Nicola Mangion

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