Woman in her bedroom

We need to talk: Overcoming the culture of silence around sexual violence in humanitarian operations

Humanitarian aid workers are accustomed to their security managers being blunt about the risks they face on the job.

It focuses the mind and ensures the team takes things seriously. When it comes to the risk to women of sexual violence, however, the subject is often politely avoided. As one aid worker recalled of her security briefings, “Nobody ever said, ‘if you are a woman who is kidnapped, it is probable that you will be chained to a bed and raped by multiple men every day,'” a scenario that befell two of her colleagues that year.

Rape serves as a potent weapon of war because of the shame and psychological harm it inflicts on its victims. And as with other forms of attack in conflict settings, humanitarian workers are not immune.

But the stigma surrounding sexual violence means it is chronically under-reported and under-addressed within humanitarian teams. This silence perpetuates the stigma and increases the risk to aid workers, from both inside and outside their organisation, as Humanitarian Outcomes found in our 2019 Aid Worker Security Report.

Hidden risks

Sexual assault is unique not only for the additional layers of humiliation and degradation it involves, but because its victims are virtually all women. In homicides and non-sexual assaults, by contrast, men are much more likely to be the victims as well as the perpetrators. Mirroring these general violence patterns, men in the aid sector suffer attack rates that are three-to-six times higher than women for all forms of violence apart from sexual violence, the category which shows the widest disparity between the sexes.

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At least that is what the weak and far from complete data on sexual assault indicate. The Aid Worker Security Database recorded 32 reports of sexual assaults affecting 49 aid workers (all female) since 1997. This number is likely far below the actual incidence, and obviously does not take into account sexual assaults on civilians.

While some surveys of aid workers on the subject have been conducted, they focused largely on expatriate staffers, who in most cases make up less than ten percent of the humanitarian workforce. It is highly probable that a great many more national staff women are unreported victims.

Reporting, tracking, and sharing security incident information has long been recognised as essential for situational awareness and risk management for all aid organisations operating in a given area. But in the case of sexual violence, it frequently goes unreported, unrecorded, or unshared. The reasons are many, and occasionally well-intentioned, but they hinder mitigation efforts and increase risk.

Victims of sexual violence may be reluctant to report the attack due to the sense of shame pervasive in many cultures which can be amplified by a security management mindset that puts the onus on the woman to avoid sexual assault. In some cases, organisations refrain from recording even a strictly anonymised incident report at the worker’s request. Many organisations now have explicit policy commitments to “survivor-led responses,” which “grants the survivor total decision-making control over all aspects of the post-assault process,” even as they acknowledge the steep trade-off between the personal interests of the victim and the interests of security for others or for pursuing justice.

The vicious circle of silence

In risk management you cannot manage what you cannot measure. Weak data, combined with discomfort around the subject in organisations where senior staff and security managers tend to be male, create a negative feedback loop in which the risk of sexual violence can’t be sufficiently analysed or mitigated. Moreover, research strongly suggests that atmospheres where the subject is not openly discussed are more likely to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace, potentially increasing the risk for more serious sexual violence to occur.

This is key, because the other way sexual violence differs from other categories of attack is that threats to women can exist both outside and inside the organisation. Sexual assaults and coercion have been committed by male aid workers against female colleagues, as well as aid recipients, and the existing data suggest that aid workers are more likely to be abused by a co-worker than an external perpetrator.

Ways forward

More in-depth research and data collection is needed to better understand the scope of the problem, including more systematic, large-scale representative surveys of aid workers across the humanitarian sector. But in the meantime, aid organisations should not wait to take certain steps to prevent and mitigate the risk of sexual violence affecting their staff or aid recipients.

To encourage reporting, aid organisations must make the process as frictionless as possible for victims, allowing multiple possible channels, such as a trusted colleague taking the information if this is more conducive to an atmosphere of safety and trust than dealing with security staff. And while respecting and safeguarding any desire for privacy and anonymity, it is imperative that the incident be reported and shared with others in the community whose security depends on having such information.

Some aid organisations have adopted a more granular and personalised approach to risk assessment based on the aid worker’s specific risk profile, which is the intersection between their personal characteristics, such as gender, nationality, race, religion, and other identities, and the existing threats in the context. Using what is called the person-centered approach to conduct risk assessment will improve risk awareness for all staff and make informed consent for employees possible.

Openly discussing not only of the risk for external sexual violence, but the unacceptability of any sexual harassment or abuse inside the organisation, can prevent toxic workplace cultures and cultivate the “empowered bystander approach” to preventing sexual abuse, which takes the burden off the intended target and makes allies of her colleagues.

Finally, our interviews with sexual violence survivors underscored how essential aftercare and follow-up can be to recovery and longer-term psychological well-being. Beyond simply providing the basics, such as emergency contraception, anti-HIV prophylaxis and other medical care and trauma counsellin, aid groups must be prepared to provide longer-term psychological support, career counselling and legal assistance. Alarmingly, as of a 2017 study, Tufts researchers found that most organisations still lack adequate procedures in this area.

Sexual violence in conflicts and volatile environments is a problem that extends far beyond the humanitarian workforce, of course, and remains a significant risk to vulnerable women and children in crisis-affected communities.

Two recent international initiatives—the Oslo Commitments on Ending Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Humanitarian Crises and the Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies—reflect a recognition of the need for humanitarians to tackle the issue from all sides, and have mobilised commitments from governments and international agencies for funding, policy, and operational contributions to that end.

At the field team level, aid workers and security professionals must also be willing to overcome their instinctive avoidance and discomfort, to have the difficult conversations necessary to manage risk better.