Protection of Humanitarian Action Series: Duty of Care and Sexual Violence

If the audio player above does not load, you can listen to the podcast here.

How much responsibility do humanitarian organizations have to protect the staff they send into the field? Due to the often austere, volatile, or insecure nature of humanitarian response settings, aid workers have long recognized the inherent personal and organizational risks of humanitarian action. Yet increasing threats and attacks against humanitarian actors in various emergency settings have spurred renewed debate over organizational responsibilities to protect not only civilian populations, but also their own staff. Much of this debate has focused on the principle of ‘duty of care’, and the ethical, professional, and legal obligations of organizations toward their staff, volunteers, and partners in the field.

Sexual assaults and violence within the humanitarian sector are a visible and important marker of the urgency of addressing organizational duty of care. A growing number of reports indicate that sexual violence is not only a serious risk for civilians in humanitarian emergencies, but also for humanitarian aid workers themselves. More and more aid workers, overwhelmingly women, are coming forward with reports of sexual assaults, harassment, and discrimination – perpetrated not only by armed actors, but by their colleagues in the humanitarian sector – prompting a sector-wide reevaluation of how to prevent such assaults and better support victims, and efforts to improve organizational response and prevention strategies.

In this episode, we’ll speak with experts and practitioners about the duty of care for humanitarian organizations, and the challenges of implementing it in practice. As organizations struggle to adapt and maintain programming in challenging operating environments, what responsibility do they have to protect their own staff? What does this duty entail, and how can organizations better act upon their duty of care without overly constraining their operations in the field?

This episode is a continuation of ATHA’s series addressing the protection of humanitarian action from attack.

Key questions:

  • What duty of care do humanitarian organizations have to their staff in insecure settings? What does this duty entail, and how far does it extend?
  • What are their ethical, professional, and legal obligations towards their own staff, volunteers, or partners in the field?
  • How can organizations better prepare for and respond to violence against their personnel and operations? And how can they better act upon their duty of care without overly constraining operations in the field?
  • In light of growing revelations of sexual violence in the humanitarian section, what is needed for organizations to improve policies and procedures to prevent, train, investigate and respond to sexual assaults?

Extended Segment 2 on duty of care for humanitarian organizations: Lisa Reilly, Executive Director, European Interagency Security Forum (EISF); Christine Williamson, Director, Duty of Care International

If the audio player above does not load, you can listen to Extended Segment 2 here.

Extended Segment 3 on security management in the field: Luigi Bocci, Field Security Officer, World Food Programme, Afghanistan; Erwan Rumen, Field Security Officer, World Food Programme, Iraq

If the audio player above does not load, you can listen to Extended Segment 3 here.

Luigi Bocci
Field Security Officer,
World Food Programme, Afghanistan
Twitter: @WFP
Phoebe Donnelly 
Assistant Researcher, Feinstein International Center,
and Doctoral Candidate,
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy 
Twitter: @PhoebsG86
Dyan Mazurana 
Associate Research Professor,
Feinstein International Center and Friedman School,
Tufts University 
Megan Nobert
Report the Abuse 
Twitter: @megan_nobert
Lisa Reilly
Executive Director, 
European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) 
Twitter: @EISF1
Erwan Rumen 
Field Security Officer,
World Food Programme, Iraq
Twitter: @WFP
Orly Stern 
Independent Researcher and Consultant, Senior Fellow,
Harvard Humanitarian Initiative
Twitter: @orlystern
Christine Williamson 
Duty of Care International 
Twitter: @dutyofcareint



Mohammed Abaker Musa's picture

it really an issue that humanitarian aid workers face and the suffering factor from the surveys reports that most of the staff who exposed to sexual assaults did not got the deserved care from their agencies,moreover some of them they lost their jobs either by their decision because they did not able to continue others were fired by their agencies ,getting their medical bills or other related benefits was also a major issues where agencies are very reluctant to deal with.
it is reality that the humanitarian workers are working in very fragile areas where they posed to such kind of sex assaults or harassment, reading from the reports and even from my own experience in the context where i am working is that in most cases the the victims are targeted by their work colleagues especially by those who in the higher positions than their victims ,in such cases the victim find her/his self between two fires ,one is that either she/he compromise her/his dignity and accept what comes from her senior colleague or she may be fired or treated differently , is this regard most of the agencies have their own protection policies and procedures as papers but when it comes to the participial they are helpless because simply ,victims may not find an appropriate way to report their cases resulted to no revealed cases while victims are suffering or the agencies find it difficult to deal with the issues because of it is sensitive issue and may not culturally accepted to be revealed or in some cases the governments are also very tough with agencies that are revealing sexual issues.

my question for you is that i think that most of the sexual assaults in the humanitarian actions are remain unreported by the victims because either they feel that their agencies will not take positive actions but rather they may take negative action against the victim , or they do not want to be perceived as sexually assaulted people, so to what extend you agree with my thoughts? and what are your own thoughts?
it seem to me that those it who revealed thier sexual assaults and harassments

Hassan Mohamed's picture

Sexual assaults and violence within the humanitarian sector are a visible and important marker of the urgency of addressing organizational duty of care. The issue of sexual violence in humanitarian aid workers – which ranges from sexual harassment to female humanitarian aid workers. It reached a larger consciousness nearly two years ago, which is leading to discussions at the global humanitarian level about how organisations should address the problem. First, though, we need to grapple with a strong theme coming from this building momentum: why do we need to address sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers?

A growing number of Report has been collecting data on how humanitarian aid workers are experiencing sexual violence since 2015, and the results show a clear and pervasive problem: some of humanitarians has experienced an act of sexual violence in the course of their work; others are survivors themselves.

At this point, the data strongly suggests that sexual violence occurs in humanitarian workplaces – whether the perpetrator is a colleague or a member of the local community and is a particular risk for female humanitarian aid workers, though both men and women can be survivors of sexual violence. Humanitarian organisations must take action to address the issue. Organisations owe this duty of care to their staff, which is one the strongest reasons for humanitarian organisations to have effective and efficient prevention and response strategies. More and more , more organisations are exploring how to address the security issues facing their operations and staff, and what their obligations are towards their employees. This must include sexual violence.

There has been previous analysis done into what duty of care humanitarian organisations should provide their staff; however, the changing landscape of more frequent short-term contracts, localisation, and a growing trend of placing expatriate staff under national contracts means that more work is needed. Furthermore, conspicuously, no consideration has been previously put into the duty of care required in the event of an incident of sexual violence, which requires a different approach due to the personal and long-lasting trauma that can be associated with such an event.

Addressing sexual violence in humanitarian aid workers in a comprehensive fashion will take time, commitment and investment from humanitarian organisations. The challenge of tackling this problem, however, cannot be seen as a reason to avoid talking about it. As noted, when working to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) perpetrated against local populations by aid staff, this provides a five-point roadmap intended to assist the government, donor countries, and other entities to put in place a comprehensive national strategy to reduce sexual violence, provide survivors with immediate and urgent assistance, and develop a long-term approach to end these abuses include health and safety of beneficiaries, physical prevention, emergency health service, access to justice and legal and policy reform.

Merry's picture

This is such a timely discussion and reflection for me personally.

I had an experience which could be categorized as manipulative sexual harassment from one of my previous duty stations - Afghanistan actually. It happened with my then direct supervisor. When it happened, I did not really realize that it was harassment because somehow the situation was manipulated into something that could seem "natural". I was not feeling "forced". However, later on when I came out of that assignment, I started to reflect on what actually happened, and how I felt about it. I have to say that I felt "used", "tricked" and definitely hurt. I did not talk to anyone in my organization about it, because of some kind of shame and insecurity I felt. I did not tell my family/parents about it at all because I did not want them to worry about me, who's already considered quite eccentric as I had chosen to be a humanitarian aid worker. I also did not talk about it with any other friends of my until very recently, when I opened up to one friend who came from fragile and violent field assignment too. I did not cut off contact with my ex supervisor because somehow I felt that a reference letter from him could still be helpful when it's time to get a new job. So I remained still amicable with him. For more than one year, since I came out from that duty station where the manipulation took place, I put away that particular piece of memory, locking it somewhere in a deep corner in my heart. Like that, I have been somehow able to move on in my life and look forward rather than backward. However, recently, I learned that my next potential duty station where I was keen to go would also be the new duty station of my ex supervisor (the one who from Afghanistan). I suddenly felt heart palpitation. I had to admit that I was not fully overcoming that experience from Afghanistan. I have since decided not to further pursue the potential career opportunity in that location, which could help me stay away from that person and memory. I know it could seem lame, but I would rather look elsewhere in the world to continue my humanitarian work.

There is definitely concern and risk I feel when I now think about this experience of my own. As a relatively young humanitarian aid worker, I did care too much about my own "reputation", and would not want it to be affected if I'd report the incident. The other concern is that I held the resentment for quite a long time, as it was difficult to "forgive" and "forget". Somehow the fact that the other person got away with it really annoyed me. Such hard feelings could really last for a long time. The third concern I have is that for a certain period of time, I had tried to "rationalize" what happened - it was a hardship location, where people easily felt depressed and isolated and needed some relief; it could be that that person really was "fond of me"; it could be that I really had "feelings" towards him, etc. This kind of rationalization somehow helped me feel better in the short period aftermath, but now I look back at it, I think it's not healthy in the longer term.

Moving forward is the best solution I have figured out personally, while I agree with that’s discussed in the podcast – there are still challenges related with reporting such incidents such as the cowboy culture and male domination. I’d also agree that “victim blame” still sits at the centre of the measures existing to prevent and address sexual violence/harassment against aid workers. Desensitizing sex or sexual stuff could also help, in my opinion – it helps aid workers (esp. female) to be brave enough to identify and report, and make suggestions to improve the culture and environment. Name and shame should be a standard practice for sexual violence. The education on sex desensitization should be one of the key orientation for any field based aid worker.

Anonymous's picture

It is true sexual assault on female aid workers happens in several contexts including South Sudan. The challenge here is under-acknowledgement by management, and in some cases, victims are accused of defamation or get fired. There was a case of a national Organization in South Sudan which fired a female national staff for complaining about sexual violence against her. The principle of duty of care is violated by the same management, which should be promoting it. Several incidents of sexual violence/harassment have gone unnoticed, simply because victims try to protect their jobs by staying silent, and the reputation of their employers.

In a context like South Sudan, National Organizations do not have the capacity to provide security training to their employees, neither do they have robust policies and procedures for prevention, investigation and response to sexual assault against employees.

The humanitarian community should advocate for functional complaint Response mechanisms in Aid Agencies and Organizations. Employees can only report cases if they are assured of protection, feedback and confidentiality.

Staff representative positions can be created in Aid Organizations to act as links between HQ, Country office and staff. Employees may feel more comfortable discussing grievances with staff representatives, rather than with senior management. Sexual violence cases in such a setup are handled in a confidential manner, and victims identity remain anonymous.

The humanitarian community should advocate to in-country authorities for robust policies regarding sanctioning or deportation of higher level managers who either fire victims of sexual assault or are themselves perpetrators of such abuses.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Allows content to be broken up into multiple pages using the separator: <!--pagebreak-->.
  • Allows breaking the content into pages by manually inserting <!--pagebreak--> placeholder or automatic page break by character or word limit, it depends on your settings below. Note: this will work only for CCK fields except for comment entity CCK fields.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

Recent Tweets

Our Sponsor

A Program Of

All materials © 2014 Harvard University

Back to Top

Back to Top