Just five of 10 aid agencies open about sex abuse cases amid Oxfam scandal, survey shows

An Oxfam sign on a kiosk that was used to distribute water in Corail, a camp for displaced people of the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti February 13, 2018. — Reuters pic
An Oxfam sign on a kiosk that was used to distribute water in Corail, a camp for displaced people of the 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti February 13, 2018. — Reuters pic

LONDON, Feb 14 — Only five out of 10 global aid agencies were willing to disclose the extent of sex abuse by their staff in an exclusive survey, as a major sex scandal involving British charity Oxfam ricochets through the sector.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation in November asked 10 leading aid agencies for figures on sex abuse cases, as well as how many staff members were sacked as a result, as sexual harassment scandals hit Hollywood and beyond.

Only two groups — Save the Children and Oxfam — provided numbers, with 16 and 22 staff respectively sacked over the past year. Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) replied several weeks later.

But with Oxfam under fire in recent days over sexual misconduct accusations in Haiti and Chad that threaten the group's UK government and EU funding, one other humanitarian group yesterday produced numbers when asked again.

Four did not give answers and one response was pending.

Several industry experts have warned that the backlash against Oxfam could drive charities to cover up cases of sex abuse for fear of losing support and funding from the public, donors and governments.

Aid agency World Vision said yesterday there were 10 incidents in 2016 involving either sexual exploitation or abuse of a child involved in one of the charity's activities.

Out of 50,000 staff and volunteers, the Christian development agency said it recorded four cases of workplace sexual harassment. It was yet to say how many people were fired.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy of incidents of violence against children committed by our staff or volunteers,” said spokesman Henry Makiwa, adding it publicly discloses sex abuse figures each year.

'Watershed moment'

In updated numbers yesterday, MSF, which employs 42,000 people, said 20 people were sacked in 2017 for sexual abuse or harassment, and 10 people the year before.

“We remain very concerned that many incidents are not reported and know that our mechanisms need to be improved,” a MSF spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

NRC said 13 sexual harassment cases were reported in 2017 but it did not say how many were sacked as a result.

“We know that under-reporting of these kind of issues is common in the industry as a whole and that it is likely occur here as well, but we are working to increase the awareness about the issue,” Cathrine Ulleberg, special adviser on staff care at NRC, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it “cannot provide reliable historical data about staff misconduct” but it is building a database to collect this information.

“The recent revelations of sexual exploitation in the aid industry represent a watershed moment for our sector,” said ICRC spokesman Sam Smith.

“We believe this is not about a single organisation's failings, this is a sector-wide problem and we must work collectively to address and overcome it.”

CARE International said it does not publish figures regarding sexual harassment or abuse.

Similarly, children's charity Plan International did not release its figures on sex abuse cases, saying it was “currently processing the information we have to enable us to report thoroughly in the near future.”

The International Rescue Committee did not respond to multiple requests to reveal cases of sexual harassment or abuse.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation was yet to receive a response from US-based Mercy Corps but the organisation said it would produce the numbers later yesterday.

Oxfam is under threat of losing its UK government funding after the Times newspaper reported its staff paid for sex while in Haiti to help after a 2010 earthquake.

The scandal follows a pivotal year for women's rights after allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo campaign, with women taking to social media to share their experiences of abuse.

Several United Nations agencies also vowed to boost efforts to tackle harassment and protect victims. — Reuters

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