Justice for Dr. Onabolu regarding Workplace Harassment in UNICEF Bangladesh

Justice for Dr. Onabolu regarding Workplace Harassment in UNICEF Bangladesh

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Tomas Garcia started this petition to UNICEF UNICEF

UNICEF has failed to live up to its public declaration of making a change in its own findings of a Toxic Environment of Discrimination, Marginalization, and Harassment. Although UNICEF Adverts always states that “qualified women are encouraged to apply,” and while UNICEF's official report based on an independent investigation of Workplace Gender Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, Harassment and Abuse of Authority (commissioned by UNICEF Executive Director, Dr. Fore) found widespread evidence of abuse and harassment of whistleblowers, the organization has continued to fail to respond appropriately to the numerous reports of workplace harassment and extreme intimidation.

Page 6 of the ITF report notes that “this ‘results at any cost’ approach has created an environment where offenses go un-reported or un-investigated and unpunished by the set rules, as long as programmatic results are achieved; and has enabled gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, harassment and abuse of authority, which thrive in such conditions” which is to the greater detriment of female staff.

Page 14 of the ITF report notes that “Staff in focus groups and interviews also reported that gender-related discrimination occurs regularly in the workplace” …with data available to the Task team showing that “of the 366 resignations of international professional staff in the last five years, 57 per cent were female.”

Page 15 of the ITF report notes “a deeply-rooted authoritative management culture in UNICEF and identified a clear and repeating pattern in staff perceptions of this management culture” …the culture at UNICEF “has concealed unacceptable workplace behaviours and allowed abuse of authority, harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination to proliferate in silence” …which led to misconduct being underreported, “badly investigated and not adequately sanctioned for a long time.”

The above findings of the ITF illustrate the experience of Dr. Onabolu who worked with UNICEF at national and international levels for over a decade. Dr. Onabolu, a former staff member of UNICEF has been in an ongoing battle for justice after enduring a series of clearly documented incidents of discrimination, marginalization, dismissive behavior, verbal and even physical displacement, and abuse at her workstation in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her documented experiences have yet to receive an independent and fair hearing and redress, despite going through all the internal formal and informal processes of UNICEF including a one-on-one meeting with the Executive Director, Dr. Fore.

Dr. Onabolu was a UNICEF WASH (Water Sanitation Hygiene Specialist) from 2006 to 2015 in Nigeria before being promoted and moved to her position in Bangladesh. At her station, she was the only senior black female specialist amongst other specialists and has excelled in that position; earning high scores on annual evaluations, creating important social networks, and having a considerable professional impact in the field.

 Things changed immediately after a new station Chief was posted to the office. Her new Supervisor, a white Irish male began a series of strategies of gaslighting, isolation, and workplace mistreatment designed to ensure her subservience. When she did not cave, he made it clear he did not want Dr. Onabolu on his team; he ridiculed her, reassigned her work after it was completed, refused to meet with her, and immediately wrote a negative evaluation shortly after he assumed his position. This was set aside after HR (Human Resources) determined he had not been in the station long enough to have information for such feedback. Despite her complaints, there wasn’t any form of intervention capable of halting his assaults. With a white and male-dominated supervisor team, Dr. Onabolu and her struggles were silenced at the local level as other staff members were intimidated into silence or support of the gaslighting. 

After escalating her grievances to the headquarters, she was reassigned to a new duty station in New York City as a form of redress. She accepted the NYC reassignment with the promise of a one month paid leave, and four months of working from home. However, before she could resume her post, her reassignment to the new position was withdrawn without reason after she received an email from the UNICEF HR lawyer that she would not be resuming in New York and were unsure where she would actually be resuming work.

 There have been requests from women’s rights advocates to address Dr. Onabolu’s concern, however, her case continued to be sidelined and ignored. The continued extreme intimidation eventually resulted in a severe threat to her health. Despite medical reports indicating that the toxic environment was injurious to her health, she was given the ultimatum to either work under the same supervisor or leave the organization. For the sake of her health, she was forced to resign from UNICEF but has continued to fight for justice, accountability, and redress.

 Page 14 of the Abuse of Authority in UN offices of Bangladesh report notes that “Significant percentages of staff members have experienced SH (Sexual Harassment) and AA (Abuse of Authority) in UN offices in Bangladesh” …with the survey data provided showing that “incidence of AA is considerably higher among female staff members compared to their male counterparts.”

 Page 15 of the Abuse of Authority in UN offices of Bangladesh report notes that “Female staff members have reported a significantly higher incidence of AA. One-third of them have experienced such abuses, and as revealed during the group discussions, many of them are experiencing high levels of stress due to bullying behavior of the supervisor/higher authority.”

 Not only do these actions contravene the UN’s purported zero tolerance for workplace abuse, but it also goes against UNICEF's previous statements about how they intend to treat their employees who speak out against the wrongs of the organization. Dr. Onabolu’s case is a representation of UNICEF’s failure to address its own extremely problematic, discriminatory, and poor managerial skills as documented in Page 6 of the ITF report. "Furthermore, dysfunctional support from systems designed to provide checks and balances on exercise of authority, such as the management of human resources, the complaint system and internal communication with staff, have exacerbated the negative consequences of this existing culture.

 We call on UNICEF Executive Director to live up to her claims of “what we have to have is the courage to change… So, courage is what I am asking you all to think about. This means no bullying, no belittling, no malicious gossip. No harassment of any form. No discrimination. Not here, not here anymore,” Fore continued (as reported by Devex in the town hall meeting with UNICEF staff to discuss the report).

We the undersigned, are calling for a fully independent and fair investigation, the strongest forms of accountability for all those found complicit in creating a toxic environment in the UNICEF Dhaka office, and appropriate redress.


Carlos Abreu | cabreu@ithaca.edu

Chancelor Wahl | cwahl@ithaca.edu

Jordin Price | jprice@ithaca.edu

Nicole Cokely | ncokely1@ithaca.edu

Selin Tuter | stuter@ithaca.edu

Tomas Garcia | tgarcia@ithaca.edu


Note: Bolu Onabolu remains committed to the organization’s core values of care, respect, integrity, trust, and accountability though unfortunately, the findings of the ITF report indicate that “despite good intentions, UNICEF is not living those values when it comes to this most important resource; its staff.” She continues to push forward the mandate of UNICEF to actualize the human rights vision of ensuring access to safe water and adequate sanitation in her home country, Nigeria in her role as Strategic Advisor of WASHMATA Initiatives, an NGO she established after her forced resignation from UNICEF.



1. ITF report into Workplace Gender Discrimination, Sexual Harassment, Harassment and Abuse of Authority


2. UNICEF's report of its committed immediate actions to respond to the recommendations in the ITF report

https://www.unicef.org/sites/default/files/2019-06/Immediate-Actions-ITF.pdf (June 2019)

3. Capacity Needs Assessment On Gender Awareness And Preventing Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Authority in the UN Offices of Bangladesh (January 2019)

4. UNICEF chief asks for 'courage' in addressing findings on harassment, abuse





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