Safety and Security Concerns: Sexual Violence against Humanitarian Aid Workers

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

This guest blog comes to us from Megan Nobert, a Canadian legal professional and academic specialised in international criminal law and human rights. She is also a humanitarian, having worked in in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and South Sudan on issues of humanitarian law, protection and gender-based violence. Megan is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland, as Founder and Director of Report the Abuse.

The nature of operating in conflict and disaster zones means that there are inherent dangers to humanitarian work. Whether due to riots, gunshots, bombings or other threats, organisations take precautions to ensure that attacks can be anticipated and prevented, including through trainings, policies, security procedures and/or risk matrixes. One critical risk that is not often discussed, however, is that of sexual violence. This is despite growing evidence that sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers may not only be a collective experience, but a real hazard to, and in, our workplaces.

The prevalence of sexual violence in the humanitarian sector

Report the Abuse has been collecting data on how humanitarian aid workers are experiencing sexual violence since 19 August 2015, and the results show a clear and pervasive problem: 86% of humanitarians currently reporting to the NGO know a colleague who has experienced an act of sexual violence in the course of their work; 67% of those currently reporting are survivors themselves.[1] As of publication, 79 incidents of sexual violence have been reported to Report the Abuse – 50 of these occurring between 2010-2016 - a number that likely represents a fraction of the reality, as we know that sexual violence is underreported in both conflict and non-conflict situations.

With incidents of sexual violence ranging from sexual harassment to rape, and perpetrators coming from both within organisations and the local population, these experiences touch on all aspects of the work of humanitarians, both personal and professional. As one survivor reports: “I struggle a lot with my work environment because I fear sexual harassment. I know how common it is and how seldom it is reported or dealt with appropriately. I approach work a lot more cautiously because of my experience, and I believe it has impacted the quality of my work and my engagement with coworkers.”

Protecting staff and improving organisational response

In the course of collecting this data, one particularly concerning theme emerged: survivors felt that their organisations were mishandling reports of sexual violence. In fact, only 15% of responding humanitarians believe that their employers handled their complaints of sexual violence appropriately. Given that a recent study by Report the Abuse of the internal policies and procedures of 92 major UN Agencies and INGOs found that only 16% of these organisations had a single mention in their response strategies, policies and procedures of sexual violence against their employees as a risk, it is clear that organisations are under-prepared to address this problem. As another survivor reported: “I have never seen a complaint handled well; it is more a question of degrees of badly.” This is the only analysis done to date that we are aware of on the policies and procedures of humanitarian organisations to address sexual violence experienced by its employees.

In light of the lack of comprehensive practices currently existing on the issue, how can we shift these results and better equip organisations to address the problem? The key is to address the issue holistically, from prevention to policy to procedure. While typically outlined as separate concepts, in reality these categories are artificial, because addressing sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces in a sustained and substantial manner requires words and actions in all areas of humanitarian operations.

In humanitarian workplaces, we already discuss the prevention of critical incidents, e.g. riots, gunshots, bombings or other threats that result in harm to humanitarian aid workers, as noted above. Now, we need to do the same for sexual violence. By modelling from the outset that sexual violence is unacceptable, organisations can create an environment conducive to accountability, and where potential perpetrators will think twice before committing an act of sexual violence. This should be done at all stages of employment, from the human resources hiring processes, and through pre-, during and post-deployment trainings. By continuously acknowledging that sexual violence can occur against humanitarian aid workers, and that it will not be accepted, organisations and the sector as a whole can start to create space where incidents will be less likely to occur, and where survivors will feel more empowered to speak up when they do.

It is essential to ensure that organisational policies integrate not only the prohibition of sexual violence, but also protection and care for survivors. Repeated statements that sexual violence will not be condoned – in writing that all employees must adhere to – sends a firm message to potential perpetrators. It also provides clear avenues for addressing complaints when survivors come forward, guiding focal points and management to respond to incidents quickly, efficiently, and hopefully, reducing the traumatic impact of the experience of sexual violence. However, any policy must keep the survivor – their needs and their trauma – at the centre. Moreover, additional consideration should be given to the specific needs of national staff, which may vary from country to country. Our focus as organisations in these situations must be what is best for the survivor, but it should be noted that this is also good for organisations; healthy and safe staff are key to effective and efficient operations and program delivery.

How we respond to incidents of sexual violence is in many ways the most important piece, because this sets the tone for how survivors will recover from their experiences.  Focal points and management must be equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to respond to complaints of sexual violence in a manner that is sensitive and does not resort to blaming the victim. Additionally, there are often time-sensitive requirements for post-sexual violence care, with medications to prevent pregnancy and HIV infection needing to be administered within 72 hours; security and evacuation plans must reflect this reality. We also need to consider the care provided to survivors once they leave a field site, to ensure they have access to the resources they need to recover. After all, recovery from sexual violence is not a linear process, and it rarely happens overnight. 

Addressing the issue of sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces in a comprehensive and holistic manner will take time, commitment and investment from organisations. This should not be seen as a barrier to addressing the issue, however. As InterAction has noted, when working to address sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by humanitarians in local populations, “with the health and safety of beneficiaries, your funding and reputation at stake, the cost of not properly preventing and responding to SEA allegations is much greater than the staff time and resources required to do so. “ The same principle should apply to addressing sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.


Humanitarian operations seem more dangerous than ever. Duty of care is a live topic following Steve Dennis v. NRC, and organisations are grappling with how to address the security issues facing their operations and staff. Sexual violence must be part of this discussion, because the fact is that humanitarian aid workers are experiencing sexual violence, and as an industry we need to recognize this reality and address it head-on. The data is clear: we can no longer ignore sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces, nor can we hope that this problem will simply go away. The first step is to admit, as a sector, that we have not been doing well enough to address the problem of sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces. Changing things for the better need not be a mystifying or daunting undertaking; recognizing our vulnerability is an opportunity to create safer workplaces for all humanitarian workers. We must ensure that the provision of our work to protect and assist local populations does not come at the high price of the safety, security and health of humanitarians themselves.

Hearing about sexual violence experiences can be traumatizing. If you need support, resources for survivors can be found here:


[1] It should be noted that this data is only the beginning picture of the experiences of sexual violence facing humanitarian aid workers, and that the data collected by Report the Abuse is through a self-reporting survey. As more humanitarian aid workers speak about their experiences in the field, these statistics may change, however, as the first global statistics collected on the issue, these numbers are currently the best available figures. 


Sarah Martin's picture

Very timely and relevant article.

Subrata Ghosh, Associate Professor of Geology, India's picture

I think, this problem remains unreported much more in the developing countries than in the developed ones, due to poor law and order situations in the former. In many instances in the developing world, reporting such matters in the proper forum may even cost the life of the victim/reporter! As a result, generally the victims from the developing world go through a much greater psychological trauma than their counterparts elsewhere.

A simple comparison of the data on suicidal deaths post-incidence would prove my point.

So, it would be my humble request to treat the matter very sensibly and intelligently enough in the developing world in particular, so that the real help can reach the victims there effectively and adequately.

My best wishes for this noblest of missions. Thank you.

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