Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

On April 29, 2015, the Guardian news wrote about a leaked United Nations (UN) report that accused French soldiers of sexually abusing young boys aged eight to 15 at an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic (CAR).  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2015 country operations profile on CAR shows that 535,000 people are living as IDPs after violence erupted between Christians and Muslims in December 2013. France sent troops to its former colony in late 2013, and the UN sent peacekeeping missions in September 2014 to stabilize the country and provide aid to countless people who were affected by the ethno-religious conflict.

Following the conflict, there was very little media attention on the CAR and the people living there. With the recently leaked report, there are growing questions about and concern regarding the health and well-being of CAR nationals, especially vulnerable women and children. According to the Guardian, the leaked report, titled “Sexual abuse on children by international armed forces,” includes interviews of children by an official from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and a member of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) that took place in May and June of 2014. Children share stories of being sexually abused by French troops in return for food and money. This report and the issue regarding the CAR children gained more attention when Andreas Kompass, Director of Field Operations for the OHCHR in Geneva, disclosed the report to French prosecutors without the UN’s knowledge and was subsequently suspended for breaching protocol. It is reported that Kompass decided to share the report, because the UN failed to act quickly even after internal investigations concluded many children were sexually abused.

This incident in CAR is not an isolated case where a vulnerable population has been abused by humanitarian workers. In 2002, sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) gained public attention when a story broke about widespread abuse of refugees as well as IDP women and children by humanitarian aid workers and peacekeepers in West Africa. Perpetrators were workers from local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies, staff who were entrusted to protect and help people of concern. Women and girls under 18 years of age were forced to have sex in exchange for humanitarian assistance and services such as medication, food, plastic sheeting, building materials, and other humanitarian supplies. Following the incident, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) established a Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) in March 2002. The Task Force developed agreed upon definitions of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, provided guidelines for investigations and adopted six core principles for the prevention of SEA to be included in UN and NGO codes of conduct.

IASC Six Core Principles Relating to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

  1. Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of employment.
  2. Sexual activity with children (persons under the age of 18) is prohibited regardless of the age of majority or age of consent locally. Mistaken belief regarding the age of a child is not a defense.
  3. Exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex, including sexual favors or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behavior is prohibited. This includes exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries.
  4. Sexual relationships between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries are strongly discouraged since they are based on inherently unequal power dynamics. Such relationships undermine the credibility and integrity of humanitarian aid work.
  5. Where a humanitarian worker develops concerns or suspicions regarding sexual abuse or exploitation by a fellow worker, whether in the same agency or not, he or she must report such concerns via established agency reporting mechanisms.
  6. Humanitarian workers are obliged to create and maintain an environment which prevents sexual exploitation and abuse and promotes the implementation of their code of conduct. Managers at all levels have particular responsibilities to support and develop systems which maintain this environment.

Coincidently, on the same day the Guardian released the leaked report of humanitarian abuse, Elizabeth Bellardo, Senior Program Manager for Humanitarian Practice and Protection, at InterAction, gave a presentation on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse at ECDC’s 2015 National Conference held in Arlington, Virginia. She provided further explanations of each of the six core principles, shared the importance of incorporating them in our organization’s code of conduct, and emphasized the need for establishing clear reporting protocol in case of SEA. Ms. Bellardo introduced the Step by Step Guide to Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse created by InterAction, which can be used by humanitarian organizations and NGOs as a guide to develop and implement policies to prevent and respond to SEA.

We cannot do much about the children who suffered in the CAR, but we can certainly make sure that we have the policies in place to ensure the safety and security of our clients. At the end of Ms. Bellardo’s presentation, she posed three questions to the audience. These are listed below. Please take a few minutes to review your organization’s Code of Conduct and PSEA polices and make sure you are able to answer the three questions:

  • Are all six core principles included?
  • Do you know how to respond in case of SEA?
  • What are your responsibilities in regard to preventing or responding to SEA in your organization?
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