LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Only six out of 10 global aid agencies were willing to disclose the extent of sex abuse by their staff in an exclusive survey, as a major sex scandal involving British charity Oxfam ricochets through the sector.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation in November asked 10 leading aid agencies for figures on sex abuse cases, as well as how many staff members were sacked as a result, as sexual harassment scandals hit Hollywood and beyond.
At the time of publishing, only two groups - Save the Children and Oxfam - provided numbers, with 16 and 22 staff respectively sacked over the past year. Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) replied days later.
But with Oxfam under fire in recent days over sexual misconduct accusations in Haiti and Chad that threaten the group’s UK government and EU funding, two other humanitarian groups on Tuesday produced numbers when asked again.
Four did not give answers.
Several industry experts have warned that the backlash against Oxfam could drive charities to cover up cases of sex abuse for fear of losing support and funding from the public, donors and governments.
Aid agency World Vision said on Tuesday there were 10 incidents in 2016 involving either sexual exploitation or abuse of a child involved in one of the charity’s activities.
Out of 50,000 staff and volunteers, the Christian development agency said it recorded four cases of workplace sexual harassment. It was yet to say how many people were fired.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy of incidents of violence against children committed by our staff or volunteers,” said spokesman Henry Makiwa, adding it publicly discloses sex abuse figures each year.
U.S.-based Mercy Corps said it investigated 11 cases of sexual misconduct and fired five employees in the past year.
It said some of these employees were fired “even though their conduct did not rise to the level of sexual harassment or misconduct”.
In updated numbers on Tuesday, MSF, which employs 42,000 people, said 20 people were sacked in 2017 for sexual abuse or harassment, and 10 people the year before.
“We remain very concerned that many incidents are not reported and know that our mechanisms need to be improved,” a MSF spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
NRC said 13 sexual harassment cases were reported in 2017 but it did not say how many were sacked as a result.
“We know that under-reporting of these kind of issues is common in the industry as a whole and that it is likely occur here as well, but we are working to increase the awareness about the issue,” Cathrine Ulleberg, special adviser on staff care at NRC, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it “cannot provide reliable historical data about staff misconduct” but it is building a database to collect this information.
“The recent revelations of sexual exploitation in the aid industry represent a watershed moment for our sector,” said ICRC spokesman Sam Smith.
“We believe this is not about a single organization’s failings, this is a sector-wide problem and we must work collectively to address and overcome it.”
CARE International said it does not publish figures regarding sexual harassment or abuse.
Similarly, children’s charity Plan International did not release its figures on sex abuse cases, saying it was “currently processing the information we have to enable us to report thoroughly in the near future”.
The International Rescue Committee did not respond to multiple requests to reveal cases of sexual harassment or abuse.
Oxfam is under threat of losing its UK government funding after the Times newspaper reported its staff paid for sex while in Haiti to help after a 2010 earthquake.
The scandal follows a pivotal year for women’s rights after allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo campaign, with women taking to social media to share their experiences of abuse.
Several United Nations agencies also vowed to boost efforts to tackle harassment and protect victims.
Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Additional reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories