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Foreign aid sector “collectively fails” to protect vulnerable women and children

A report into the sexual exploitation of women and children in the foreign aid sector revealed organisations have “collectively failed” to confront the problem.

The International Development Committee’s report said it was “particularly horrifying” to find evidence of sexual misconduct in the sector, adding that predatory aid workers have weakened systems of government and are not likely to be eradicated quickly.

Stephen Twigg MP, Chair of the Committee, said the horror must be confronted, adding: “We acknowledge that the report – though damning – is a small, first step, but take note: we are putting all the relevant authorities on notice.

“The International Development Committee will continue to give this high priority and we will be tracking progress with a view to ensuring real improvement is made. No matter how insurmountable this looks, solutions must be found.”

The inquiry comes after it was found Oxfam senior staff, including the County Director, were paying local young women for sex in Haiti while working on the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake. Since then, scandals were found across a number of organisations and the UN was found to have been aware for over a decade.

The Committee set out recommendations for the sector, including that beneficiaries of aid should have knowledge and confidence in their rights and how to find help and resources if those rights are ever threatened or violated.

“For there to be real progress, we must expect a sustained focus engagement and leadership on sexual exploitation and abuse – in DFID (Department for International Development) and beyond, in international arenas,” the report wrote.

Reporting of the incidents should be improved as should accountability and screening processes. The Committee recognised that the aid sector has difficulties monitoring all volunteers, given the size of the sector, but said it was a problem.

Conservative Party politician and IDC member who will follow-up on DFID’s reply, Pauline Latham, said: “I have been keen to tackle this subject since the Humanitarian Summit in 2016 when it first became clear to me that this abuse was an ‘open secret.’

“I believe deep cultural change is required across all aid organisations, starting with their – all too often male – senior leadership. Sexual abuse of aid beneficiaries, and of women aid workers, which I believe is linked, must be stamped out.”

The report said that a failure to listen and consider the needs of victims and survivors will endanger a response that is not only ineffective, but potentially harmful.

The Committee added having disappointment in the UN for its failure to see through the investigations, noting that its approach lacks coherence, the victims are too easily forgotten and “the UN’s mechanisms for holding perpetrators to account are flawed”.

On top of this, the report analysed sexual abuse and harassment within organisations, as was the case at Medecins Sans Frontieres UK. It noted concern over the evidence of harassment incidents across different organisations and the failure to handle the case.

The Committee said the sector as a whole needs to confront the sexual exploitation and abuse problems that is happening across global organisations.

“It is not endemic, and it has been for a long time. Outrage is appropriate, but surprise is not. The sector needs a complete change of mindset, whereby those who fund and deliver aid are actively working together to seek out and root out the problem.”

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