Calling NGO Leaders: #TimesUp! End Sexual Harassment in the NGO sector!

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Like Hollywood, the media, politics, business or the UN, the NGO sector has its own dirty laundry with respect to how it deals with sexual harassment. This is contrary to the very raison d’être of our organisational existence and betrays the hard work, passion and sacrifice that we have invested in defending human rights and dignity. If these problems still exist, it is not for lack of individual and collective efforts to make our organisations and programmes safe spaces for workers and communities; rather it is a reflection of leadership failures to take steps to end sexual misconduct and abuse through denial, apathy or outright opposition. As women working in development, rights and social justice, we express our despair that despite our best endeavours, small and large we have once again been reminded how far our sector is from achieving zero tolerance to sexual crimes in our sector.

There have been two depressingly ubiquitous phrases responses following revelations of sexual exploitation and misconduct of Oxfam’s post-earthquake mission in Haiti: firstly that the news ‘comes as no surprise’ and secondly that this is ‘the tip of the iceberg.’ While Oxfam is in the eye of the storm, the reality of covering up incidents of sexual misconduct has echoes across the sector—it is the exception rather than the rule. The overwhelmingly male leadership in the sector must take responsibility for this state of affairs.

Story after story shows that we work in a sector that has unacceptably high levels of tolerance of sexual misconduct, not to mention bullying, discrimination and other forms of workplace abuse. That the number of sexual predators is low relative to the huge numbers of superb dedicated staff is of little comfort, when these few predators have the confidence that they operate in an environment where they are immune from sanction. The Oxfam scandal, and ensuing responses only confirm what we already know--a lax attitude to preventing and acting on sexual harassment by organisational leadership. Most egregious is the reality that in addition to the male privilege enjoyed by perpetrators of every race, nationality and class, these and other incidents have festered behind the cover of pernicious ideologies of racist, imperialist supremacy where white men are beyond reproach, while poor black and brown women and girls from the South are acceptable quarry.

Were we to write down our collective experiences—recent and past--the story  would emerge of an established pattern of male leadership indifference, discomfort or defensiveness as regards sexual harassment and abuse. Where organisations have no policies, we must climb hurdles to get them passed; once they are are in place we must haggle to have them acted on or resourced; whistleblowers and victims are ridiculed, ignored or persecuted while perpetrators are cushioned; warnings about suspected predators are disregarded when recruiting. By and large, the rhetoric of zero tolerance is exactly that—hollow rhetoric. We know this because each one of us are marked by a first hand experience of such cases where we have worked. For all intents and purposes, sexual harassment is viewed as a ‘women’s issue’ not a ‘real issue’.

We should not be satisfied with predictable platitudes that ‘things have improved’, that ‘there are only a few cases’, or that we should ‘focus on the millions of lives saved’. These ring hollow in a situation that has gone on far too long for no justifiable reason. Many of us believe the expressions of regret we hear are primarily  geared towards limiting reputational damage and financial loss—where were these tears when warnings were sounded and complaints were laid?  As more money has gone to NGOs and the stakes get higher, the tendency of NGO leadership has been to use their increased resource power bury problems, not confront them! As further cases inevitably come out in the weeks to come, it is to our sector’s great shame that those in leadership will be unable to honestly declare that they have done everything in their power to prevent these betrayals of colleagues, supporters, donors, partners and above all the communities we serve. 

Decades of internal advocacy tells us how difficult if not impossible it is to dismantle the misogynist old boys’ culture at the root of covering up sexual misconduct and abuse. What progress exists is to the credit of the many feminist activists who have gone out on a limb to make change happen—male champions have been few and far between. More women in positions of leadership may help move things forward, but judging from experience, their efforts will achieve little if nothing is done about the toxic code of silence that protects delinquent male colleagues in the name of brotherly solidarity. We do not doubt that a serious audit will find many organisations wanting in how they address sexual harassment, misconduct, discrimination and abuse in their organisations. Such a review, whether voluntary or external, is the first step to start to turn things around.

For those who are interested, there is a wealth of data, knowledge, policy recommendations, HR templates and OD tools, to ensure that sexual predators no longer target humanitarian and development work as a safe haven for their crimes. This is the moment when the NGO sector and its leadership must step up to the plate, or step down. The leadership failures that have lead to this crisis of credibility and legitimacy to must be corrected and the promise of zero tolerance made a reality. The culture of silence, denial, misogyny, racism and hypocrisy that this crisis exposes must end.

 Together we say #UsToo! #TimesUp! #NiUnaMenos!

 



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