The recent exposure of sexual misconduct by charity workers in Haiti, Sudan and Chad has forced us to reckon with a series of uncomfortable truths: revered charities like Oxfam and Save The Children have turned a blind eye to sexual exploitation for years, women and children have been put in danger as a direct result of engaging with said organisations, and it has taken until now for the culprits responsible for sexual misconduct to face any real consequences.
But perhaps most disturbing of all is the language that has accompanied the unearthing of what was, until recently, an under-reported culture of sexual exploitation across a number of charities and foreign-aid initiatives. All but diminishing the insidiousness of the involvement of children – most of whom are likely poor and black – in the unfolding scandal, a number of publications and charities have taken to referring to child victims of sexual abuse as “young” or “local women” and “underage prostitutes”.
In Oxfam’s 2011 report on sexual exploitation and other aspects of misconduct by charity workers in Haiti, for example, rather than referring to allegations of the abuse as child sex-trafficking victims, the charity instead chose to say that it could not “be ruled out that any of the prostitutes were under-aged”.
A 2008 report from Save The Children, another charity currently embroiled in a sexual-abuse scandal, chose to draw attention to the underground culture of sexual exploitation by charity workers abroad, saying that “children as young as six” were “trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, soap and, in very few cases, luxury items such as mobile phones”.
Compare this – the suggestion that the sexual exploitation of these children was somehow transactional – to reports on the Rotherham scandal, for example, which rightfully framed targets of the child-grooming gang – most of whom, incidentally, were white – as victims of child sexual abuse. Rather than lumping the abuse of children in with sex work, or inadvertently suggesting some element of consent among abused children, public engagement with the scandal tended to focus on paedophilia.
Underlying the abusive behaviours of charity and aid workers in disaster-stricken countries is the exploitation of power
While evidence of the sexual abuse of children in countries like Haiti and Chad has been disputed in some cases – Oxfam, for example, concluded that there was a lack of proof that its former country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, had sexually exploited underage girls as well as women – it is worrying that the possible involvement of children in charity sexual-exploitation scandals in black countries is only ever mentioned in passing, if at all.
And it all seems to be tied to racism – most notably, the racist assumption that black children are more mature, or less innocent, than their white counterparts. A 2017 report from the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, for example, revealed that black girls are seen as “older and less innocent” than white children, in many cases leading to the hypersexualisation of girls as young as five years old. According to a CNN report on the study, “Black girls were more likely to be perceived as knowing more about adult topics, such as sex, and were more likely to be perceived as needing less protection and nurturing”. It’s hard not to view these findings in relation to the charity abuse scandal, especially considering how long it has taken for organisations like Oxfam, or UN Peacekeepers, to be held accountable for their actions.
Underlying the abusive behaviours of charity and aid workers in disaster-stricken countries is the exploitation of power. Power over women, power over people of colour, and power – in this case – over black children, many of whom, sadly, have yet to be afforded the support that we willingly extend to other child victims of abuse and trafficking.