Guest Post: Song of Protest

A Female Humanitarian Worker's Perspective
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Illustration by Martine Ehrhart

We have been considering hosting a guest post for a while. Our growing readership comes primarily from the sectors we service and we wanted to use our the platform to amplify voices that do not otherwise find space publicly. With this - our very first guest post - AAPC is reproducing a small, personal account from one of the women we have supported. She has chosen to remain anonymous and we have done our best to obscure the identity of her employer as well. The author quit humanitarian work almost a decade ago but an unprompted review of her old sexual harassment complaint clawed open her healed wounds. She found herself struggling once again to make sense of the enforced decision of disappearing and leaving the work, and the world, that she loved so much behind her like a bad memory. This is her story. In her words.

          "My stomach squirms and my breath sinks with sadness reading the news of a deadly incident involving a humanitarian worker. I look at photos shared on Facebook by people I met in my life when I was a humanitarian worker myself. I know some of the faces: people I met in Sudan, in Haiti… They are posting happy photos to remember the person who is now gone.This is not a professional article with photos taken by journalists “grasping the essence of war and humanitarian work”. This is people missing a friend and family member. I feel their pain and cry over their loss.

 I did not know this young, loved person but this is common ground for me. Other people I did know have been killed while on a mission. As I have written before elsewhere, it is has felt like a part of the deal. When you dedicate your life to assist and protect vulnerable people in conflict zones, you take that risk. Had I died on a mission I would have been missed deeply and honestly, I am sure. The killing took place in the last country I lived, while I was still in love with this profession. My bowels churn…fortunately I was not killed or kidnapped. But my angst is not of sadness. Or not just of sadness. I feel angry and frustrated towards humanitarian organisations. I want to shout: Load of hypocrites!

The humanitarian world is highly hypocritical.

I am not talking about humanitarian projects and workers. I am talking about the way organisations treat humanitarian employees. I am talking about support and help when humanitarian workers are victimised. I am talking about myself, being sexually harassed by a colleague, losing my job, ending my career and finally being insulted by the same organisation that would have named a tree after me, had I died on the field. Fuck off.

What makes me angry is the realisation that the way my career was ended was not unique or casual. Although the sexual harassment was the straw that broke the camel’s back, my load was heavy before that incident. My wounds got deeper after it due to the lack of support and understanding. I had been exposed to life-threatening situations, heavy workload and emotionally painful experiences with absolutely no support. To add insult to injury, mechanisms in place, like rest and recovery days, were not respected and the Ombudsman office was a joke lacking the basic notions of respect and confidentiality.

 In order to survive these hard conditions, with my family and friends far at home and without proper organisational support, I did what most women do. I created a network of friends in every new mission, and I dated. Sometimes I was lucky, sometimes I was not. When I was lucky, I met amazing people who are still in my life and close to my heart. Other times I fell in the hands of predatory men who used colleagues and women from other organizations as their personal harem. This is bad in any circumstances but extremely irresponsible in field humanitarian work.

In one such mission, I was in a very isolated position, in lock down conditions and internet did not work. I was dating a superior who cheated on me. I was so lonely that I tried to stay friends with him despite the infidelity in order to have someone to chat with in the little hole I was living. To my mortification and humiliation, he stopped answering my calls. I had been an easy prey, confident that if a superior had made advances to me it was certainly an honest interest in my person and not just “mission” diversion. My saving grace was a friend, an amazing woman, who was comprehensive beyond expectations, and supported me through all that self-abasement and terrible loneliness.

The #Metoo movement hit the humanitarian world in 2008 with a scandal affecting mainly Oxfam. This led to the implementation of some mechanisms with the aim of protecting women from sexual violence in many organisations. Nevertheless, it is window-dressing as there has not been a real effort in understanding and addressing the vulnerabilities of “humanitarian women”. It is such a tremendous pending task that I would not even know where does one start from. Equal opportunities to access decision making positions? Facilitating motherhood before you are too old for those who wanted it? Preventing predatory behaviour in (mostly) male employees? Enable and reward female leadership and working style?

The love for a beautiful profession and the fear of retaliation, leads to a lack of open internal critique in the sector. There are several serious unaddressed issues that harm and damage humanitarian workers, especially women. Sexual harassment, alcoholism, drug abuse, workplace bullying, promiscuity and lack of support when facing mental health challenges are the biggest ones that come to mind. One can argue that all these matters are to be expected when you choose such a tough profession. Agreed. Does this mean that organisations can hide behind this clever-sounding excuse than actually comply with the minimum standards that would be required in their own countries of registration, like Europe or USA? Well, it seems so.

Sexual harassment is the tip of the iceberg. Organisations are at least pretending to do something about it. Do not be fooled by them, for in my experience it is an eyewash.

I contacted the organisation where I was sexually harassed and, to my astonishment, not only was I insulted through the “investigation” process, I was denied explanations concerning the process and people involved in the adjudication of my allegations. Finally, even the Compliance Office plainly ignored my emails. This was not a story from long ago, this was 2019. What must be seen is that there is a culture of impunity and laxity rooted in the core of most organisations that cannot easily be changed.

I know mine is not the only voice in this song of protest. I love singing, I love choirs, I love the idea of my voice adding to the many, mainly female voices rising against the situation women face in humanitarian work. I hope our stories will be heard and things will change. To those who kept singing when I was silent, I am grateful. Now that I have found my voice, I lend it to keep the euphony going. Meanwhile, I hope the recall of my ordeal might reach the ears of women who might need reassurance and support in their struggle. To these women: remember you have the right to be happy; it is not you who is at fault but a broken system that must hear our songs of protest."

FAO – Food and Agriculture organization

IAEA - International Atomic Energy Agency

ICC - International Criminal Court

ILO - International Labour Organization

IMO - International Maritime Organization


IOM - International Organization for Migration

OECD - Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

NATO - North Atlantic Treaty Organization

OPCW - Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

OSCE - Organization for security and cooperation in Europe

UNO - United Nations Organization Secretariat

UNAIDS - Joint Unirted Nations Programs on HIV/AIDS

UNDP - United Nations Development Programme

UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

UNF - United Nations Population Fund

UNHCR - United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

UNICEF - United Nations Children's Fund

UNOPS - United Nations Office of Project Services

World Bank

WFP - World Food Programme

WHO - World Health Organization

WIPO - World Intellectual Property Organization

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

EIB - European Investment Bank

European Parliament

ESO - European Southern Observatory

European Union of Intellectual Property

CDSP Missions and Operations


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Zero Tolerance Must Translate to Zero Tolerance in Action

Limited to no progress towards this promise and no indication that it will be achieved in a reasonable timeframe.

This promise has not been achieved, and although progress is underway, much more work needs to be done. There may also be problems with the actions taken so far that undermine the usefulness of action towards this promise.

This promise has been achieved, or strong positive progress has been made, even if some work needs to be done.

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guteress, made a slew of promises and assurances on combating sexual harassment and abuse (SHA) in the UN. Guteress accepted that the UN had failed to gain the trust of its staff to come forward against misconduct because it had failed to stand by previous complainants. Over a period of 24 months since late 2016, he called on staff to Speak Up against harassment when they see it and to support staff who report it, while himself committing to stronger policies on reporting, retaliation and investigation, as well as a rapid response system.

When one condenses all the Secretary General’s “Zero Tolerance Must Translate to Zero Tolerance in Action” speeches from late 2016 to early 2019, they can be distilled into 10 key commitments. Since accountability is essential in targeting and addressing prohibited conduct, we tracked how the UN was performing on these promises. The following assessments are based purely on our analysis of the limited information on progress available through public domain material.

This assessment focusses on new commitments, made in the wake of the #MeToo campaign and does not cover policy changes prior (e.g. revising the whistleblower policy and the gender parity policy).

Hire SHA specialised investigators OIOS and train all existing investigators in SHA related skills

Six SHA specialised investigators were appointed globally and report to the OIOS representative in New York. It is UNKNOWN whether all existing investigators were trained on SHA related skills.

This promise seeks to improve internal resourcing to investigate and respond to complaints. Therefore, it is concerning that the Office of Staff Legal Assistance (OSLA) has been ignored. Without legal support, neither the complainant nor the accused can navigate the complex internal justice mechanism. Sadly, complainants are frequently advised that they will not require legal support during the internal investigations. The OIOS has seen over 200% increase in SHA complaints since 2016-17 while OSLA continues to work with 12 lawyers for the UN Secretariat global workforce. A holistic assessment of overall staffing needs would be a useful step for achieving the intent of this promise.

All SHA complaints will be treated as 'category A' complaints and investigated directly by the OIOS

Despite being applied for all new cases, the 2019 anti-harassment policy of UN does not make it part of the promised responses. Also, older cases continue to languish without the 'upgrade'.

The process of reporting and investigating SHA to be streamlined, with 3 months deadline and a victim-centric approach

The 2019 anti-harassment policy has done the exact opposite of this promise by completely removing any time line from the investigation and resolution process. Effectively, the SG has backtracked on this commitment.

Launch a 24 hours helpline

The SpeakUp helpline in New York HQ and can be reached at: +1 917-367-8910.

UN duty stations in Addis Abba, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva, New York, Nairobi, Santiago, and Vienna can use extension: 78910. Peacekeeping or political mission personnel must dial an addition prefix: 1212-78910.

That said, these numbers are difficult to recall or use, especially for staff not in the United States; the helpline is staffed by volunteers, rather than a trained dedicated team; and volunteers are not equipped for tele-counselling but rather provide directory services for the most appropriate port of help for the caller.

Conduct a system-wide staff survey on sexual harassment

The Safe Spaces Survey was conducted by Deloitte and published in mid-January 2019.

The survey found 1 in 3 women in the UN face sexual harassment, rising to 1 in 2 for interns, consultants and temp staff (i.e. those on precarious, insecure contracts with greater dependency on supervisors for their UN careers). However, no actions have been identified to respond to this finding, particularly considering the escalating use of short-term and insecure employment arrangements partly as a cost-cutting measure.

Revise internal training modules on SHA, retaliation, ethics, etc.

The mandatory training on the SGB on harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse of authority has been revised. UNKNOWN whether other training have been updated too.

To improve the impact of preventive measures such training, expert behavioural change trainers need to be involved in the design and delivery of any new training.

Harmonise internal rules, policies, and procedures to address SHA as well as to take similar measures

All efforts and discussion for harmonisation of the anti-harassment policy has met with such great resistance that we don't expect this to ever pass! Even the very basic - a common definition of sexual harassment - cannot be agreed by UN bodies, who believe they are all different & unique and need a fit-for-purpose policy.

Create UN system-wide HR screening database of 'confirmed' perpetrators

Clearcheck is available to all UN bodies internally, and maybe opened up to the development/ humanitarian sector at large if proven useful.

However, it continues to face a lot of resistance and concerns on privacy and data storage grounds. As per the progress report, the database is in use but not widely yet. Time will tell whether it is faithfully updated or referenced.

Rebuild trust in the organisation

Through the IASC Champion on SEA and SH, there are efforts for leadership commitment to rebuild trust by bringing to light cases themselves rather than covering up; worrying less about reputation by focusing on follow up and self-reporting; making disclosure obligations for applicants to prevent rehiring of offenders and waiving immunity. OCHA created a fund of $1 million to support and speed up investigations on SEA and SH. However, noting the grave reputational damage from SEA, it is expected that the primary focus of a "joint" mandate on SEA and SHA will remain on beneficiaries rather than what the UN views as “blue-on-blue” transgressions.

Unequivocal commitment to not invoke immunity for those accused of SHA & develop a code of conduct for delegates to the UN

UNKNOWN when and how immunity will be waived, but it certainly has not happened yet!

In existing and ongoing cases, where the Secretary General had invoked immunity, he continues to stress it to protect the officials accused to shield them from local and/or other legal proceedings.

There is no update on code of conduct for delegates visiting the UN and the latest Handbook does not even mention the anti-harassment policy.