Sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian response

Sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian response first came to public attention with the release of a report in February 2002 of a joint assessment mission examining the issue. The joint mission (composed of UNHCR-SCFUK personnel) reported that "refugee children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have been subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation, reportedly by employees of national and international NGOs, UNHCR and other UN bodies..."[1] Humanitarian agencies responded almost immediately with measures designed to prevent further abuse, setting up an inter-agency task force with the objective of "strengthening and enhancing the protection and care of women and children in situations of humanitarian crisis and conflict..."[2] In 2008 there were signs that sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries not only continued, but was under-reported.[3] In January 2010, the ECHA/ECPS task force developed a website devoted to protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) by personnel of the United Nations (UN), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other international organizations.[4]

UNHCR/Save the Children 2002 report on 'sex for aid' in West AfricaEdit

A summary of the main findings of the report may be found in an article written by one of the original authors.[5] The report was based on a field mission by the team, which conducted interviews and focus groups with approximately 1,500 individuals (children and adults) in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone:

The researchers found that not only was sexual exploitation widespread, it was also perpetrated by aid workers, peacekeepers, and community leaders. Humanitarian workers traded food and relief items for sexual favors. Teachers in schools in the camps exploited children in exchange for passing grades. Medical care and medicines were given in return for sex. Some forty-two agencies and sixty-seven individuals were implicated in this behavior. Parents pressured their children to enter sexually exploitative relationships in order to secure relief items for the family.[6]

The full report was published 16 years after it was written by the UK parliament as part of its inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector on 31 July 2018. The report entitled 'Sexual violence and exploitation: the experience of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone' cites the names of implicated aid agencies and peacekeeping battalions and can be found at the following link:

Response by humanitarian agenciesEdit

Investigation and sanctionsEdit

The allegations were investigated by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which in October 2002 issued a report concluding that it found "no widespread abuse by aid workers". In an interview with CNN in May 2002, High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers stated, "We hardly find concrete evidence. It's very scarce". Save the Children UK (a partner in the original study) responded, "Nothing that the UN has found makes us think that we were wrong".[7]


In July 2002, the UN's Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) adopted a plan of action which stated that sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers constitute acts of gross misconduct and are, therefore, grounds for termination of employment. The plan explicitly prohibited the “Exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex, including sexual favours or other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour”. The major NGHAs and the UN agencies engaged in humanitarian response committed themselves to setting up internal structures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries.[8][9]

UN Secretary-General's bulletinEdit

A step towards protection from sexual exploitation was taken by the UN with its publication of the Secretary-General's Bulletin, Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.[10] The purpose of the bulletin was to draw up standards for protecting vulnerable populations (particularly women and children) from sexual exploitation and abuse. It defines sexual exploitation as:

Any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from sexual exploitation of another.[11]

It prohibits such behavior by all UN staff and by the staff of all organizations working in cooperative arrangements with the UN (i.e. NGHAs). In addition, the bulletin outlines sanctions and procedures to be followed for preventing sexual exploitation and abuse.

Building Safer Organisations projectEdit

In November 2004 a collaborative effort by a number of NGOs set up the Building Safer Organisations project (BSO), to develop the capacity of NGOs "to receive and investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse brought by persons of concern—including refugees, displaced persons and local host populations". Hosted at the outset as a pilot project by the umbrella organization, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), the project initially developed training materials. Using these materials, the BSO project carried out participatory workshops for NGO and UN staff. As of June 2006, a total of 137 NGO staff took part in management or investigation workshops.[12] In April 2007 BSO was moved to Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International, where it has been merged with HAP's complaints unit.[13] By April 2008, BSO had held "16 Investigation workshops; seven Investigations Follow-up workshops; seven Management workshops as well as four Training of Trainers workshops and 1 Complaints Mechanisms workshop. 522 humanitarian agency staff has participated in the BSO Learning Programme workshops."[14]

Since its inception, BSO has been helping organisations apply principles of good complaint-and-response systems to cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by staff. BSO helps NGOs achieve greater accountability by:

  • Training NGO staff through the BSO Investigations Learning Programme (LP) on conducting fair, thorough and confidential investigations into complaints of sexual exploitation and abuse of disaster survivors
  • Promoting implementation of common standards on preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse by working with national and regional networks
  • Publishing guidelines[15] on complaints mechanisms and investigation procedures, and a training handbook[16] containing the Investigations Learning Programmes
  • Providing opportunities for peer-to-peer engagement
  • Supporting NGOs to develop better practices through research and advocacy[17]

An independent evaluation by the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children concluded that the "BSO learning program has proven a valuable tool for humanitarian agencies in strengthening their capacity to receive and investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries by staff....(and) BSO learning program materials are effective and well received".[18]

Reasons for few complaintsEdit

Two 2008 studies have pointed out that disaster survivors who have been sexually exploited (or abused) by aid workers often do not complain. Save the Children explains the lack of complaints thus:

  • Children (and adults) are inadequately supported to speak out about abuse against them.
  • The international community does not exercise strong-enough leadership or managerial courage on this issue.
  • There is a lack of investment in child protection by governments and donors.[19]

On 25 June 2008 the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International (HAP) released a report on sexual exploitation and abuse, "To complain or not to complain: still the question." This report includes details for three countries in which consultations were held. It concludes:

Sexual exploitation and abuse is a predictable result of a failure of accountability to beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. The single most important reason for this ‘humanitarian accountability deficit’ is the asymmetrical principal-agent relations that characterise most ‘humanitarian’ transactions, that puts the users of humanitarian assistance at a structural disadvantage in their relationship with humanitarian aid providers.[20]


  1. ^ "Mano River Union: Reports that child refugees sexually exploited shock Annan". 27 February 2002. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
  2. ^ Iain Levine and Mark Bowden (15 October 2002). "Protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises: the humanitarian community's response" (PDF). Forced Migration Review. p. 20.
  3. ^ "No One to Turn To" (PDF). Save the Children UK. 2008.
  4. ^ "protection from secual exploitation and abuse by UN and related personnel". PSEA task force. Retrieved 7 October 2010.
  5. ^ Asmita Naik (15 October 2002). "Protecting Children from the Protectors: Lessons from West Africa" (PDF). Forced Migration Review.
  6. ^ Ferris, Beth (2007). "Abuse of Power: Sexual Exploitation of Refugee Women and Girls". Brookings Institution.
  7. ^ Quoted in Asmita Naik: "The West Africa sex scandal" HPN
  8. ^ Iain Levine and Mark Bowden (15 October 2002). "Protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian crises: the humanitarian community's response" (PDF). Forced Migration Review. p. 20.
  9. ^ "IASC, Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse" (PDF).
  10. ^ "Secretary-General's Bulletin" (PDF).
  11. ^ "Secretary-General's Bulletin" (PDF). p. 1.
  12. ^ "Women's Commission Evaluation".
  13. ^ "HAP Projects".
  14. ^ "To complain or not to complain: still the question" (PDF). p. 12, fn. 6.
  15. ^ "Guidelines" (PDF).
  16. ^ "Handbook" (PDF).
  17. ^ "HAP Services".
  18. ^ "Women's Commission Evaluation June 2006".
  19. ^ ""No One to Turn To" Save the Children UK". 2008. p. 20.
  20. ^ "To complain or not to complain: still the question" (PDF). p. 52.

External linksEdit