August 9, 2018 / 12:12 AM / 4 months ago

Charities expect rise in sexual misconduct cases as they flush out abusers

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid agencies expect reports of sexual misconduct to rise and more staff to be fired this year as they crackdown on staff offences after a sector-wide abuse scandal, an exclusive survey revealed on Thursday.

The aid industry came under scrutiny earlier this year after revelations that Oxfam staff used prostitutes in Haiti during an earthquake relief mission in 2010 snowballed into widespread reports of harassment and abuse in the sector.

A survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February found more than 120 staff from 21 leading global charities were fired or lost their jobs in 2017 over sexual misconduct.

Six months later, the same agencies were asked what steps they had taken to address the problem after Britain’s aid watchdog accused charities of failing to tackle “horror” sexual abuse and harassment.

Five of the 21 did not respond.

Most of those that did reply said they had reviewed or overhauled policies amid concerns abuse was going unreported.

More than a third said they had seen or expected to see an increase in reported cases as people felt able to speak out.

“While even one case of sexual misconduct is too many, we are encouraged to see more team members coming forward,” said Amy Fairbairn, a spokeswoman for global charity Mercy Corps.

The charities said measures taken including staff training, improving whistleblowing services, and stronger background checks for new recruits.

FRESH FIRINGS

Four of the agencies contacted provided figures on abuse and harassment cases that emerged in 2018 and said how many staff members were sacked. Some disciplinary proceedings were pending.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said it had fired four people so far this year and received 24 reports of sexual misconduct, abuse, harassment and exploitation, up from 17 in all of 2017.

Save The Children, which was criticized for its handling of complaints against senior management, dismissed four people and three resigned following 43 reports of harassment and bullying, almost twice the number received last year.

“We view the increase as an encouraging indication that our efforts to raise awareness of the problem, and to improve reporting, are succeeding,” said spokeswoman Simona Sikimic.

“We are sending a strong message to anyone who seeks to act inappropriately that their behavior will not be tolerated.”

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) dismissed two people. Action Against Hunger said it investigated one allegation dating back to the 1990s but was unable to identify those responsible.

Nine groups, including Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), World Vision, Plan International, Mercy Corps and Islamic Relief, planned to publish detailed figures at a later date.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), CARE International and Action Aid said they had encouraged more people to come forward and hoped, or were confident, this would result in more cases of misconduct being brought to light.

Christian Aid said it would report figures to Britain’s charity regulator, while the International Rescue Committee (IRC) disclosed data for 2017, which saw it dealing with 18 cases of harassment, abuse and exploitation.

Compassion International, Caritas, BRAC, International Medical Corps and Catholic Relief Services did not respond.

REFORMS

Oxfam said it had spent more than 2 million euros ($2.3 million) on safeguarding since the scandal broke and created new dedicated safeguarding roles - one of seven agencies to do so.

Earlier this year both Oxfam and Save the Children said their funding had dropped after the scandal.

Providing training courses and strengthening the recruiting process were among the most common measures that charities responding to the survey said they had taken.

The ICRC said it had set up an anonymous hotline to report abuse, while Islamic Relief gave staff access to an independent whistleblowing service. Other groups already operating such systems said they had reviewed or improved them.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said it was conducting a survey of its female staff to ask what needed improving.

“Incidents of sexual misconduct occur in all sectors,” said Christian Friis Bach, secretary general of the DRC.

“But obviously working ... with some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people, the humanitarian sector has a strong responsibility in mitigating these risks.”

($1 = 0.8626 euros)

Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens and Belinda Goldsmith. 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

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