A coalition of Canadian aid organizations are banding together to prevent and combat sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, after a sexual misconduct scandal at Oxfam Great Britain shook the international development and humanitarian sector earlier this year.
The Steering Committee to Address and Prevent Sexual Misconduct, a group of more than a dozen civil-society organizations, is urging Canadian development and humanitarian leaders to sign onto a pledge to improve their sexual misconduct policy and practices. The pledge is being circulated at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation’s annual conference in Ottawa this week, where the matter of sexual misconduct in the international aid sector is front and centre.
The sector is facing what it has deemed its own #MeToo moment, prompted by outrage over Oxfam Great Britain’s handling of sexual exploitation and abuse by some of its former aid workers on mission in Haiti. In February, The Times of London reported that seven former Oxfam Great Britain staff members were accused of sexual exploitation and abuse, including the use of prostitutes, in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake response. Soon after, Doctors Without Borders admitted it fired 19 staff in 2017 for sexual harassment or abuse.
Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada and co-chair of the steering committee, said the pledge calls on the leaders of Canadian aid organizations to establish a culture of “zero tolerance” for sexual misconduct, strengthen existing policies and practices on the matter, guarantee allegations are investigated and ensure perpetrators are held to account.
“The pledge is ambitious but it is also achievable and, from what we’ve learned today, we know that it’s desperately, desperately needed."
Ms. Delahanty was referring to the emotional stories that conference attendees heard from aid workers who were assaulted on the job. The conference, held at a former church in downtown Ottawa, went silent when one of the aid workers, Megan Nobert, took the stage to share how she was raped while on a mission with Nonviolent Peaceforce, an unarmed peacekeeping organization, in South Sudan.
Ms. Nobert, originally from Saskatchewan, described Feb. 7, 2015 – the day she says she was raped – as the worst day of her life. She was enjoying a few drinks with co-workers at a United Nations camp for internally displaced persons in Bentiu, South Sudan, when her glass of red wine was drugged. The last thing she remembers was making dinner plans with a friend at the bar.
“It’s black until I wake up alone and naked in my metal container, covered in vomit, and knowing that there had been some sexual activity that I did not recall, that I did not consent to,” Ms. Nobert recalled.
Ms. Nobert said it took 24 hours for her to figure out that at some point during that night a man named Ahmed, a Syrian working for a Sudanese well-drilling company in the area, had raped her. She says it took her another day to seek medical attention, going against all of the advice she was trained to give as a protection officer working on sexual-violence issues.
“I was so shut down and in such a state of shock that I didn’t even know how to do the most basic things I could rattle off to anybody else,” Ms. Nobert said.
According to Ms. Nobert, Nonviolent Peaceforce did not immediately evacuate her after the rape, despite her request to leave. She stayed in South Sudan for another four months, until her contract was over, because she couldn’t afford to quit early. She said the country director who was dismissive of her case has since been promoted.
Ms. Nobert went on to found Report the Abuse, a non-governmental organization with a mandate to break the silence on sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers. The organization shut down in August, 2017, because of a lack of funding.
She said efforts such as the pledge signed at Wednesday’s conference are a good first step, but need to be followed up with accountability measures.
For Ms. Nobert, criminal accountability is highly unlikely in the case, given that she doesn’t even know the full name of her attacker, who has since disappeared. She just hopes organizations that have mishandled sexual-misconduct cases can acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them.
“I want you to remember how absolutely bloody hard it is to have to stand up here and tell you about the worst moment in my life,” Ms. Nobert, on the verge of tears, told the conference.
"If you forget, there will be more people like me.”