“August 20 2017 was a very difficult moment for me… there was quite a long mourning period, it genuinely felt like grief, like something or someone had died.” Megan Nobert, a humanitarian and lawyer from Canada, was working in South Sudan in 2015 when she was drugged and raped by another aid worker. But that’s not what made her grieve last summer. What felt like loss was the closure of the NGO Nobert had set up to provide other aid workers with an opportunity to “break the silence against and within the humanitarian and development community”. In the two years it had been running, before funding streams dried up, Report The Abuse collected more than 1,000 accounts of aid workers who’d been abused by others within the humanitarian community.
And, right now, Report The Abuse seems more vital than ever, because humanitarian crisis zones are having their very own #MeToo moment. While it’s long been reported that women and girls are at risk of sexual violence in crisis zones, it’s clearer than ever that some of the aid workers tasked with helping those suffering have exploited them. Not only have men raped, or coerced into sex, vulnerable women and young girls – some underage – in exchange for money, food and sometimes phones, but there are indications that their employers – big-name charities such as Oxfam and Save The Children – have been covering up, or refusing to investigate or address, these crimes.
“It’s endemic in the sector,” explains Nobert, over Skype from Beirut, where she now lives and works. “That’s not to suggest every aid worker is either committing violence or abuse, but it’s certainly a problem, and because we’ve been struggling to address it, the problem’s got bigger and it’s allowed serial perpetrators to have full run.”
In areas of crisis, “gender and power dynamics” slip down the register of priorities, Nobert explains. “A lot of humanitarian work in, say, Syria, is triage. You’re trying to maintain basic needs at best. So, having a long-term conversation about women’s empowerment seems a bit too early.”
And this goes for humanitarian aid workers, too. There’s a “gender drain” of women leaving to fulfil family-care requirements – either for children or parents – which leaves a certain power imbalance: “Our leadership is still overwhelmingly men and the humanitarians entering the field are overwhelmingly women.”
In the basest terms, men are in charge not only of the beneficiaries but also the women who set out to help the beneficiaries. And, as well as the cultural expectation that a woman’s place caring for the needy is at home, rather than away, there’s a cultural expectation of humanitarian women’s guilt.
Even in a fairly well-run camp you can spend an entire day listening to women who’ve been raped, mass raped, or have lost children. It’s not possible to not be affected by it
“There’s a falsehood in perpetuating that martyred image of humanitarian action, it’s led to a lot of mental-health problems like burnout and PTSD,” says Nobert. “We may not experience violence but even in a fairly well-run camp you can spend an entire day listening to women who’ve been raped, mass raped, or have lost children. Women tell you how they’ve had to put babies down and walk away because they can’t feed them. It’s not possible to not be affected by it.”
Trying to deny trauma’s ripple has two impacts. Firstly, “We can’t do good work when we’re unhealthy.” Secondly, “This martyred, ‘I don’t have a right to complain even if I’m struggling’ mentality has led to a lot of sexual violence experienced by aid workers not being reported. There’s this idea that ‘All that happened to me was…’ We justify a lot of these actions without meaning to.”
If women – who could perhaps influence attitudes towards preventing violence against women and girls, locally – are numb to their own experiences, where does that leave the beneficiaries?
Perhaps Report The Abuse should be relaunched, I suggest. “I don't necessarily think it needs to exist again. Professionally, it was satisfying to be heard, the [number of] survivors who came forward was far beyond what I ever could have imagined. And, personally, it was a huge part of my healing – I set up Report The Abuse only seven months after I had been raped and only three weeks after going public.
“While I didn’t feel like we closed on the right note, my message then was this problem shouldn’t be within one one-woman NGO. It needs to be owned by every organisation, everyone needs to be better, and I think that’s now being shown in the actions different organisations are taking in light of different revelations.”
When Report The Abuse started, only “15 per cent of humanitarian organisations had any kind of policy or procedure relating to sexual violence in the workplace”. That figure is now three times higher, she says.
Speaking out – and challenging organisations to step up to the plate – has made a change so far, and Nobert is hopeful that this is only the beginning: “I guarantee there are many more revelations to come. And every single revelation is women coming forward, and that represents another step on the concrete path to doing better.”