Britain launches new inquiry into sex abuse by aid workers

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 July 2020 12:58 GMT

A UN peacekeeper speaks on his radio next to boys standing on dry land, after heavy rains and floods forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes, in the town of Pibor, Boma state, South Sudan, November 6, 2019. Picture taken November 6, 2019. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

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As cases of sexual abuse and exploitation in the aid sector are unveiled, British lawmakers will now look into how this can be prevented

By Emma Batha

LONDON, July 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British lawmakers will hear evidence that aid workers are demanding sex in return for assistance when they launch an inquiry this week into preventing sexual abuse and exploitation in the aid sector.

The industry has come under intense scrutiny since 2018 when it emerged that Oxfam staff had paid young women in Haiti for sex while responding to the 2010 earthquake.

Parliament's International Development Committee (IDC) found similar cases of abuse and exploitation across other organisations and countries during an inquiry following the scandal.

"From what I've heard this is endemic within the aid sector," IDC chairwoman Sarah Champion told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"There's a culture that allows this to happen and that's what we need to try to ... unpick and stop."

Champion said cases she had come across involved U.N. agencies and big aid organisations as well as local agents contracted to deliver assistance.

"It seems to be almost an accepted trade in sex for aid, and that I think is what's shocked me most. It's almost like a commercial rate that people are aware of," she said.

"(For) the beneficiaries it's basically you acquiesce to this or you don't eat - and this is from the very people who are in paid employment to try and protect and serve you."

She said some cases involved aid being traded for sex in refugee camps.

The IDC will consider what progress has been made to protect aid recipients from sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers since its 2018 inquiry.

In particular, it will look at the mechanisms in place to enable victims to report incidents, how reports are handled and what psychological support and legal advice victims can access.

Britain's government announced last month it was merging its diplomatic and aid departments in September.

Lawmakers will also look at what action the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should take to improve reporting of incidents, strengthen independent investigations, support victims and provide access to justice.

The inquiry will begin on Thursday when lawmakers will hear from whistleblowers who have tried to prevent abuse.

Champion said some whistleblowers had lost their jobs after reporting incidents, and the inquiry would look at how well whistleblowers are protected from retaliation.

The government's Department for International Development (DFID) welcomed the inquiry.

"We have made huge progress on this issue, including launching schemes to stop perpetrators of sexual abuse from working in the sector. But there is still more to do," a spokeswoman said.

Initiatives launched since 2018 include a joint project with UK police and Interpol to improve background checks on aid workers and support investigations into abuse cases.

Another scheme allows charities to share information about staff sexual misconduct and stop perpetrators moving between posts undetected. At least 36 people have been rejected for jobs since its launch in early 2019.

DFID has also set up an initiative to help smaller aid organisations in developing countries strengthen their own safeguarding measures.

Related stories:   

World's poor 'will pay price', charities say as UK scraps aid department

MSF reports sharp rise in sexual abuse and misconduct complaints

Rise in sexual abuse cases in aid groups as more victims speak up

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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