By Lin Taylor
LONDON, Feb 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Leading aid agencies received at least 539 reports of sex abuse and harassment last year, an exclusive survey showed on Monday, a 13 percent increase on 2017 which charities said shows abuse victims are more willing to speak up.
The reports have led to the sacking of 91 staff, with many other cases under investigation, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation's second annual survey of 22 leading global charities, including the United Nations (U.N.), Oxfam and CARE.
"If we sustain momentum on this issue and keep working to ensure people feel safe coming forward to report abuse, the numbers of reported incidents will inevitably go up in the short term," said Mike Wright, of Bond, a network for UK aid groups.
"But as we reinforce the message that abusive behaviour will not be tolerated and continue to improve our safeguarding practices, in the long term they will fall," he said.
The aid industry has come under scrutiny after revelations last year that Oxfam staff used prostitutes in Haiti during an earthquake relief mission in 2010 snowballed into widespread reports of harassment and abuse in the sector.
The number of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse reports for 2018 is likely to rise as it is mostly based on preliminary data that did not cover the full year. Nine out of the 22 agencies did not yet have any figures for 2018.
In 2017, 476 sexual misconduct cases were reported, according to figures disclosed by 18 of the agencies surveyed. Four did not provide data.
Charities quizzed said they have overhauled their approach to dealing with allegations after last year's survey - which excluded the U.N. - found that at least 120 staff were fired or lost their jobs.
Oxfam said reports surged after the Haiti scandal broke last February and the charity appealed for those who experienced abuse and harassment to get in touch. This led to 73 reports being made in about six weeks, some dating back to the 1990s.
"The increase in the number of people reporting incidents can be seen as a reflection of growing confidence in our improved processes," said an Oxfam spokeswoman via email.
Oxfam has invested 3 million pounds ($3.9 million) in its safeguarding work and encouraged its 10,000 staff and 50,000 volunteers to report concerns, she said.
Medecins Sans Frontieres, Save the Children, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Action Aid, Concern Worldwide, Islamic Relief and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said they would publish their 2018 figures later this year.
Catholic Relief Services did not respond to requests.
Lawyer Megan Nobert, who was sexually assaulted by a fellow aid worker in South Sudan in 2015, said she was optimistic change is rippling through the sector.
"I am hearing from many survivors and their organisations that they are doing their best to make sure the response to survivor reporting is what they deserve," said Nobert, founder of campaign group Report the Abuse.
"There is still room for improvement, and I do believe that improvement will continue to come in 2019."
The U.N. said it has tried to boost transparency in how it deals with accusations over the past few years after a string of sexual exploitation and abuse accusations against its peacekeepers in Africa.
During the first nine months of 2018, there were 188 reports of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment across all U.N. agencies, a sizeable increase on 2017, which had 138 reports over the entire year.
Russell Geekie, a spokesman for the U.N.'s humanitarian arm OCHA, said the sector was promoting a "speak-up culture" and preventing abusers from being re-employed.
But Paula Donovan, co-director of Code Blue, a campaign seeking accountability for abuses by U.N. personnel, said she was doubtful of the U.N.'s commitment to stamp out abuse and called its figures "bogus".
"The annual numbers reported by the U.N. are not actual data, but a random assortment of partial figures gathered from just some parts of the U.N., using no uniform definitions or metrics," Donovan said.
Unlike aid agencies and relief groups, which are regulated by national laws, the U.N. can withold information from governments or the public and can essentially play by their own rules, she said.
Donovan said UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibe, for example, should have been fired in December, instead of being given six months to step down, after an independent panel said he tolerated a culture of "sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power".
"Victims' increased confidence that they will be heard, or that justice will be served, appears to prompt higher levels of reporting, which will soon fall again if institutions fail to hold perpetrators accountable," said Donovan.
A U.N. spokeswoman said the global body works together with member states to tackle sexual misconduct, and supporting victims was its priority.
"If the U.N. concludes that there are credible allegations that they may have committed a crime, it refers the matter to relevant national authorities for further action as appropriate," she said in emailed comments.
She added that reports are received from all U.N. agencies.
"Allegations are reported publicly on U.N. websites on a regular basis to ensure transparency and have been for some time," she said.
Most charities quizzed for the survey pledged to protect victims through initiatives like staff training, launching dedicated helplines and email addresses for reporting abuse.
"The sense of urgency and need for transparency and collaboration have definitely increased," said Moutushi Kabir, spokeswoman for Bangladesh-based BRAC International, the world's largest development agency.
"As a sector we have to be more vigilant." ($1 = 0.7682 pounds)
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katy Migiro; . Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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