Haiti UN peace mission, 2013 (Photo: Getty Images)
Haiti UN peace mission, 2013 (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINION

#MeToo can’t cover the bleak reality of the Oxfam sexual-abuse scandal

But the vulnerable women targeted by aid workers in disaster zones need our support – and compassion fatigue must not be allowed to set in, says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

Vulnerable young woman, plus richer and more powerful man.

We all know the dynamic by now, and we know that it often ends badly. After all these months of #MeToo, it’s easy to get a little numbed; to stop being quite so shocked, every time the same thing resurfaces in a different guise.

But the tales coming out of poverty-stricken Haiti about aid workers – who were supposed to be helping the survivors of a horrendous earthquake – holding debauched parties, at which local women (some of them possibly underage) were paid for sex, are bleak enough to stop anyone in their tracks. The government is now urgently considering whether to pull the plug on funding for Oxfam’s programmes, after the current secretary of state for international development, Penny Mordaunt, said there had been a “complete betrayal” of those the charity is supposed to serve. (Two of the men sacked over the Haiti allegations got the posting despite concerns about their behaviour during a previous stint in Chad, and both were able to move on into other charity jobs after Oxfam sacked them; the full story never did become public at the time.)

And that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. There were 120 different allegations of sexual harassment involving Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid and the Red Cross last year, although the latter involved staff at headquarters in Britain. Aid agencies have absolutely every incentive to keep quiet about it because if they washed their dirty linen in public, donations could quickly start drying up. You give money to charity because they’re supposed to be the good guys – as, no doubt, the vast majority of aid workers are – rather than part of the problem.

The victims’ situations are not necessarily very familiar to millions of Western women and they’re not instantly relatable to our own workplace

Yet we know that there have been similar scandals in the past involving UN peacekeepers, that disaster zones can be a magnet for sexual predators because they're chaotic places where people are desperate and the rule of law has broken down. Hovering over all this, meanwhile, is the ugly shadow of a racial, as well as sexual, power imbalance; we’re talking here about predominantly white men, wealthy by the standards of the places they were working in, exploiting poor black women and in post-colonial countries that come with a long, painful history attached.

All of which means we’re now entering the most grown-up, difficult part of the #MeToo process; the one where it’s not necessarily Us Too. The victims’ situations are not necessarily very familiar to millions of Western women and they’re not instantly relatable to our own workplaces. If you’ve never been in a refugee camp you probably don’t have a story of your own to hashtag, or not in the way we did when it was actresses being attacked by Hollywood producers, or female journalists dodging the wandering hands of Cabinet ministers, or Presidents Club waitresses being groped. There are no juicy arguments to be had about whether Feminists Have Gone Too Far this time, just a bleak recognition that everything about this scandal is awful and that it only gives ammunition to right-wingers who think we shouldn’t be spending so much public money on overseas aid anyway. The victims are faceless, and don’t have a platform to tell their own stories. And that’s a test of what this movement actually means, because we are now down to the women with most to lose.

It wasn’t easy for Hollywood A-listers to go public with their experiences of sexual assault and harassment, but it was in some ways a damn sight easier than it is for ordinary women without wealth, power and PR operations – something that, in fairness, many of them recognised by starting up a legal defence fund for ordinary American women in similar circumstances. In turn, those of us who aren’t dependent on charity for food, clean water and shelter are in a relatively privileged position by comparison. If we tune out now, start developing compassion fatigue because it all sounds so grim and so very far away, then we’ve lost sight of what it should always have been about. Not just Me Too, but Them As Well.

@GabyHinsliff

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Haiti UN peace mission, 2013 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Sexual assault
sexual harassment
Sexual abuse
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