LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British aid agency Oxfam said it had dismissed 22 members of staff over allegations of sexual abuse in the past year, as campaigners called on governments to strengthen oversight of aid groups they fund.
Media reports of inappropriate behavior by Oxfam staff emerged amid heightened global attention around sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace in the wake of dozens of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.
Oxfam said it dealt with 87 claims of sexual exploitation and abuse involving its workers in the year ending April 2017, a 36 percent increase on the previous year.
The charity employs more than 5,000 people worldwide.
“Donors and government entities need to ask more questions of the people that they are funding,” said aid worker Megan Nobert, who founded the Report the Abuse campaign group after she was raped by a colleague while on assignment at a U.N. peacekeeping base in South Sudan.
Oxfam said it referred 53 of the complaints to police and other services, while 33 were internally investigated, with about three-quarters resulting in disciplinary action.
“Oxfam treats all allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation very seriously,” the anti-poverty charity said in a statement, attributing the rise in numbers to better reporting procedures, including a confidential whistle-blowing help line.
Data on allegations of sexual abuse by staff was published in its annual report every year, it added.
Nobert said sexual misconduct was a pervasive problem within the aid community, which suffers from sexism and a “cowboy-esque” approach to work.
Staff living and working in small compounds in remote areas were the most at risk, she said.
“It creates situation where lines get crossed,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
A 2016 survey of 1,000 female aid workers at 70 organizations found about one in two had experienced persistent sexual advances or unwanted touching at least once in their careers while on a mission.
Less than a third reported the incidents, with most saying they remained silent out of fear for their career. Others cited shame, luck of trust in the system and the absence of a report mechanism.
Britain’s charity regulator said on Tuesday it received 1,131 reports of serious safeguarding incidents from charities last year, which included allegations of sexual harassment or abuse, but could not provide a breakdown of the figures.
Nobert said governments could encourage more victims to come forward by demanding that the aid groups they fund be more transparent about how they deal with cases of sexual misconduct.
“When we don’t talk about problems they stay hidden,” she said.
Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) which operates predominantly through partner organizations, including charities, said it had a “zero-tolerance” approach to sexual assault or harassment.
“We expect our partners to have robust systems and processes in place to prevent such behavior,” it said.
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org