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A “toxic” sexual harassment culture revealed at Medecins Sans Frontieres UK

Foreign aid staff at the Medecins Sans Frontieres have allegedly used prostitutes and exchanging aid for sex, the latest sex scandal report reveals

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) UK – also known as Doctors Without Borders – has come under fire for the “toxic” culture of sexual harassment and abuse across the globe.

The allegations have been made against logistical staff, and not doctors or nurses, for their use of prostitutes and boasting that “it’s so easy” to exchange medicine for sex with young girls.

A whistleblower, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of being blacklisted by other foreign aid agencies, told the BBC that the behaviour was “widespread” and that “the girls were very young and rumoured to be prostitutes”.

“My colleague, who was staying in the same residence for a long time, felt that this was a regular occurrence,” she said, adding it was “implicit” they were there for sex.

She said that there was an abuse of power among older men, adding it was because they were taking advantage of their “exalted” status as a Western aid workers.

“There’s definitely a feeling that certain predatory men were seen as too big to fail. You would often see men who were older, middle-aged, partying with much younger local girls,” the whistleblower said. “It was sexualised.”

MSF are the latest in a long line of foreign aid charities accused of sex scandals. The BBC revealed in its Victoria Derbyshire programme that sexual assault and harassment has created a “toxic” culture.

Another whistleblower, who spoke on the programme, said that a senior colleague had claimed it was possible to barter medication for sex. She said he had bragged about it “quite a bit” in front of workers in Liberia.

“He said ‘Oh, it’s so easy to barter medication with these girls in Liberia,” she said. “He was suggesting lots of the young girls who had lost their parents to the Ebola crisis would do anything sexual in exchange for medication.”

In a statement, MSF UK said they do not tolerate “abuse, harassment or exploitation” within the organisation and were sorry for the women who had been mistreated.

“We have looked into the claims put to us by the BBC as far as we were able, but the lack of detail provided has made this difficult,” the statement said. “We should urge anyone with any concerns to report them via MSF’s confidential whistleblowing mechanisms so that we can take action.”

In February, following allegations senior staff at Oxfam used prostitutes while working in Haiti, MSF admitted it sacked 19 staff for sexual harassment in the last year.

The BBC further revealed that its own staff also experienced sexual harassments, with one third of female employees having been touched inappropriately at work.

One whistleblower claimed MSF workers overseas had sexually harassed partners at other non-government organisations. In one case during a video call, the men told a woman she was “sexy” and asked where her husband was.

“I think it’s epidemic and part of the institution. There are some that just accept it. Then there’s another area [of people] who report it, but nothing gets done.”

In another instance, a woman was harassed by a colleague who made life “miserable”. She said she reported the incidents to a boss in the field who offered to mediate but also said she would be fired if she didn’t work things out with the colleague.

“While we have reporting mechanisms in place where complaints can be made, we know we need to do more to ensure that they are known, trusted and used by the people who need them,” the MSF statement said.

MSF also said that underreporting has been a key challenge as women were fearful of not being believed or being stigmatised. The organisation expressed remorse for the women and welcomed further scrutiny from the community.

“We welcome the current scrutiny as this is what enables change in and beyond MSF. The more people talk about these issues, the more it discourages unacceptable behaviour and encourages individuals to report it.”

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    January 4, 2019 at 12:29 pm

    The toxic culture of MSF is present in many of the sections, not just the UK section and including the Australian section. The abuse is wide ranging, not just sexual in nature, and happens in the offices as well as the field environment. There are many things wrong with the MSF model, including their in-house complaints mechanisms designed to bury complaints, which you only realise once you work for them.

    MSF have many people with genuine compassion and humanitarian interests working for them. Unfortunately, too many of these people are not in positions of power to create change and leave or burnout from being immersed in such a toxic culture. This is not a new issue for MSF (or other humanitarian NGOs), however their dishonesty and failure to address issues properly have harmed people which is not very humanitarian and goes against their own charter.

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