Addressing Sexual Violence in the NGO Community

The Silence Breakers emerged as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in a swirl of allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, exposing famous individuals in Hollywood, politics, journalism and other industries as sexual predators.  Survivors of sexual harassment and assault have stepped forward and launched a conversation that all of us, in every sector and slice of life, need to have, honestly and in the open. The NGO community, driven to promote the dignity of all and correcting power imbalances, must address sexual harassment and the inequalities that abet it. We need to live our values by addressing sexual harassment in our own community and make sure that all staff and partners, as well as those we serve, are safe.

In March of this year, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Principals adopted a stance of zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the humanitarian sector encompassing both the NGO community and UN agencies. As Co-Champion of the IASC’s work to implement this vision, alongside Kate Gilmore of OHCHR, I see this as a necessary foundation but not a complete response. It is just the beginning.  We need to identify shortcomings and gaps in our organizations and implement plans to prevent harassment. We need to believe our coworkers and peers, and we need to investigate and act.

According to research by The Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, sexual assault of aid workers is often perpetrated by those within one’s own organization. Even in the high stress, high pressure environments of the aid world, we cannot allow prevention to fall by the wayside due to external concerns or to be accepted as part of the “culture” and “cost” of the job. We also need to maintain a survivor-oriented focus in handling accusations, acknowledging the power imbalances that lead to harassment. This ethic applies to headquarters as much as it does to the field. 

Each of our missions are at their core, ethical pursuits. The NGO Community’s leadership is committed to environments where sexual harassment is not allowed or tolerated. We cannot do our work effectively if we permit the mistreatment of colleagues and peers. This is both the right thing to do and aligns with living our organizational missions.

Heroes have broken the silence but there is more work to be done. We must be true to our values and create safe and enabling work spaces for all. We must commit to a culture that is ethical in all dimensions. We must be prepared for the long road, as our work will not be completed until there is no longer a need for a #MeToo movement.