#AidToo: Where do we go from here?


When I went to Martin Knops, Oxfam’s in house counsellor, in 2010 just two days after I was violently attacked by Samuel Musa my line manager I was not thinking about punishing Musa, I wasn’t even thinking of him at all. I went to seek help for the shock and emotional distress the attack caused me. I should have been advised to call an ambulance not the police. I needed first aid. I didn’t get it. Not even when I asked for it.

Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman wrote that like me many of the women she has spoken to didn’t want the men accused punished or even shamed. They told her they wanted acknowledgment and maybe an apology. I wanted more than than that. I wanted treatment. I asked again in 2013. I was completely ignored. My email wasn’t even acknowledged. 

The attack and the subsequent dismissal were life changing events. I’m not the same person. 

I’m surprised at the lack of response to a growing crisis. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that last year, an estimated 646,000 people were victims of sexual assault in England and Wales. The Charity Commission said more than 1000 cases of sexual harassment were reported to them last year. Meanwhile, only 2 out of 10 women report. 

Studies have long established the negative health effects of sexual assault.  Sexual abuse does not only leave psychological scars. It can also have long-lasting health consequences. I recall an insurance ad that said “Its not what they take away its what they leave behind.”

It is not enough for DFID, the Charity Commission, Oxfam and Save the Children to publish reports about how they will prevent SEA and punish abusers. They need to make commitments to provide mandatory psycho-social and legal support to everyone that experiences SEA on the job. The hysteria around sex obfuscates the fact that sexual harassment is a labour rights issue as well as a human rights issue.

The IDC Report was wrong when it said – “Currently, when organisations fail to hold abusers to account, the victims and survivors have no other recourse to justice.” They continue to have recourse to the law courts. The question is why aren’t they taking advantage of those laws? Are they aware of the legal and social reliefs that are available to them? And whose responsibility is it to inform them of those rights? What challenges do they face in exercising those rights? What are the institutional, legal and social obstacles survivors face when reporting and seeking support?

The IDC report was right when they said  “that self-regulation has failed.” My question is how did the sector become self regulating? Where are the legal exemptions? Only the UN has legal immunity and if they are to be believed they have waived it for SEA cases. What stands between aid workers and the courts? When and how did the Charity Commission and DFID take their place? 

I read that in UK employment law, the problem is not even that legal safeguards don’t exist – it’s that employers don’t understand them. My research suggests otherwise. The Kemp & Merklebach report ‘Can You Be Sued?’ was released in 2010 and very clearly laid out how employment laws affected aid organisations in several jurisdictions including the U.K. I think employees may be the ones who do not understand the employment laws. It would be nice to see the report updated and expanded to include jurisdictions in the global south. South Africa has been especially vibrant in creating case law. So has Nigeria. The National Industrial Court updated its court rules last year and included specific rules for filing a sexual harassment claim under constitutional human rights protections instead of employment law. One might also be able to make a claim under the Employees Compensation Act.

After receiving my invitation for the safe guarding summit I asked DFID to include a thematic event around the summit that would answer some of these questions and specifically consider the legal aspects of sexual harassment of staff, including employee’s and victims rights and employers legal obligations including duty of care. Implicated organisations spend more on lawyers and legal advice than they spend on safe guarding even after #MeToo. Maybe even because of #MeToo. Unfortunately DFID said there was no more room on the agenda. 

For years I have been stumbling about unaware of my statutory rights till they expired while struggling with the personal and professional fall out of my experience. How many other women are struggling and being gaslighted at the same time, their credibility and capability constantly put in question? 

I wasn’t interested in punishing my abuser in 2010 and I’m still not interested in 2017. I wanted attention for the injury his violent attack had on me. It gave me small comfort when first Samuel Musa and later Penny Lawrence resigned. Okay. Maybe I gloated a little. Not too much. Just enough. But I don’t want an acknowledgement or an apology. I want my rights upheld. Don’t you? 

As women, as feminists, as activists and as citizens we need to know about our rights and the laws that will protect them. And we need to start using those laws. Janice Turner, a columnist for the Times, asked whether our silence about sexual assault has made us complicit. I think our inaction does especially if there are laws that we can use.  

DFID should make a feminist analysis of sexual harassment laws in all recipient countries a requirement for any aid agency seeking public funds in the U.K. and if local laws are found to provide insufficient protection it should automatically void any jurisdictional clause in the employment contract. On the other hand Kemp & Mercklebach have already argued that jurisdictional clauses may be unenforceable anyway.

While I appreciate appeals to a higher consciousness, behavioural change is based on consequences not words. An observation that seemed to be corroborated by a Harvard Business School Study in 2011 or 2012 that showed only one in ten people are honest by default. The other 9 will look around to see if they will be caught or not. And if there was no one watching would pick up the hundred dollar bill they saw lying on the sidewalk. In other words, if people or organisations think they can get away with it they will. 

We also need to address the inherent inequalities and power dynamics of the aid sector. Martin Knops was in Oxford at Oxfam HQ providing mental health care support to the people that worked there. In the regions and at country level there were no such resources and requests for them were routinely denied for lack of money just like my suggestions for a safeguarding framework in west Africa in 2010 were obstructed by a lack of money for implementation. Its time for an honest power analysis. We need to change how we do aid.

#AidToo should be about well being, workplace safety and women’s labour rights. What we need now is more resources and more collaborations to take it from theory to practice. Well being in the aid sector is finally beginning to receive the attention that it deserves. The aid sector is not a paramilitary sector. Aid workers and activists shouldn’t be coming back from work shattered and burnt out. And if they do they should be able to access resources to recover. Generosity towards employees after an injury should be the default not the exception especially in the ‘humanitarian sector.’ If  employers said ‘we’re going to give you the best care possible, we going to get the best investment out of our assets’ there would be no need for legal interpretation and judicial orders but without them we cannot rely on employers or regulators doing the right thing.  

Its time to start taking care of the people that take care of others with the accountability tools that we do have.



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