One of the things I was taught in journalism school, which struck me even then as problematic, was that proximity is a vital component in news coverage. Your readers would be more moved by a fire or plane crash that happened in your own city rather than one that happened in another community, or in another country.
This seems self-evident, human nature being what it is. We are community-minded creatures. But it's equally self-evident that it leads us to ignore what's happening beyond our doorsteps, a fact that becomes glaring every year when we forget about the "International" in "International Women's Day." (It's on March 8, for those of you who failed to mark your calendars.)
Women in North America and Western Europe have rightly been celebrating the victories of the past several months, with the dam burst of revelations in the #MeToo movement. In many parts of the world, though, there haven't been conferences and red carpets and huzzahs. There's only been brutality, greeted with silence. On occasion, news breaks through that women are being targeted and terrorized by sexual violence – the Rohingya, the Yazidis, the women of South Sudan – but it quickly dies away.
Some of the most debasing and grotesque exploitation is perpetrated on the bodies of women by the very people who are supposed to be protecting and helping them. These abuses happen far away, but oddly mirror the revelations that we saw in the #MeToo movement – institutional power trying to shield itself from scrutiny, victims bullied for speaking out, predators seeking out the most vulnerable and never being held to account.
Oxfam Great Britain is reeling over revelations that in 2011 several of its aid workers in Haiti, including the local director, used local sex workers – possibly underage – at the charity's villas, and bullied and intimidated witnesses who tried to complain. According to an investigation in The Times newspaper, these Oxfam employees called their compound "the whorehouse," where they hosted "young meat barbeques."
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk
The events took place in 2011, when Oxfam had deployed more than 200 people to help Haiti in the wake of its devastating 2010 earthquake. The charity investigated the claims in 2011, and dismissed the men responsible, but never made the results public, leading to claims that it was trying to cover up the scandal and protect its reputation. Now, Oxfam Great Britain is suffering from a loss of public confidence and donors, and is being grilled by the British government. Its director recently told a government committee that the charity is investigating 26 new allegations of sexual misconduct. Oxfam's international governing body has announced an investigation of all its operations, but the damage to its reputation is done.
When the Guardian newspaper interviewed sex workers in Haiti, the women talked about how foreigners who arrived in the wake of the earthquake were a source of good money. The mayor of Port-au-Prince, Ralph Youri Chevry, told the Guardian: "I can't say this whole scandal is a surprise. [Aid workers] have been doing as they please for years."
The aid sector is open to broader-based criticisms about outsiders sweeping in with well-meaning but damaging agendas, but when it comes to sexual violence perpetrated against women who are already suffering, charities are hardly alone. The United Nations' peacekeeping and aid-delivery systems are also riddled with abuse.
In 2015, the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services issued a report detailing hundreds of instances of "transactional sex" between peacekeepers and women in impoverished areas, mainly in Haiti and Liberia. Even that figure is bound to be low, as the report makes clear: For numerous and obvious reasons, women don't come forward and complain. When they do, their concerns usually went unaddressed, or in the bureaucratic language of the report, "The United Nations has assisted very few of the victims of SEA [sexual exploitation and abuse] that have entered its victim assistance architecture."
"Transactional sex" is a particularly dry way of explaining a concept in which women are forced to trade their bodies for food, medicine and clothing. "For rural women, hunger, lack of shelter, baby care items, medication and household items were frequently cited as the 'triggering need,'" the UN report explains. Other women received "church shoes" or cell phones in return for sex.
This concept is called "survival sex" in another recent report, Voices from Syria 2018, this one about a similar situation of abuse in aid-delivery in Syria. There, women reported being too afraid to go to depots to receive food because they'd be harassed or assaulted, especially if they had no one to accompany them. As the report noted, "Sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers at distributions was commonly cited by participants as a risk faced by women and girls when trying to access aid.''
This week, the BBC released an investigation into the ways local aid distributors use coercion to gain sex from women in southern Syria, to the point where women were stigmatized for even visiting distribution centres. Perhaps not surprisingly, the whistle-blowers that the BBC interviewed said the situation has been an open secret for years. One of them, Danielle Spencer, told the BBC: "Sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls has been ignored, it's been known about and ignored for seven years … Somewhere there has been a decision made that it is okay for women's bodies to continue to be used, abused, violated in order for aid to be delivered for a larger group of people."
There can be few things more vile than forcing women who are already hungry and distressed to trade their autonomy for their family's survival. Then they're doubly degraded when their trauma is overlooked, or written off as part of the cost of war and disaster. Silence has been the norm, as the BBC's report noted, but it doesn't have to stay that way. We discovered that this year; we just need to keep pushing the borders.