#MeToo impacting the humanitarian aid sector

With recent allegations against staff at Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontier (MSF), the international aid sector is currently experiencing a #MeToo movement of its own.

A new report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “Voices from Syria 2018,” documents evidence of men demanding sex for aid from numerous women who have sought humanitarian assistance in southern Syria. The Syrian women involved allege they were coerced into marrying local officials for brief periods, providing “sexual services” in exchange for necessities like food.

The Voices of Syria report surveyed victims of sexual abuse without identifying particular perpetrators, so the data collected could only identify the broad problem rather than pinpoint specific individuals who are committing these acts. This, combined with the fact that these abuses are taking place in a war zone, makes it particularly difficult to isolate and address the offending individuals.

Humanitarian aid organizations have taken differing approaches towards preventing these abuses. Care, an aid agency that operates in southern Syria, has discontinued using local contractors to distribute aid in the region, following reports of abuse. Oxfam and MSF have also begun to take steps to clean up their own institutions. The UN has a strict code of conduct, which includes a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse and exploitation.

Even with these codes of conduct in place, UNHCR spokesman Andrea Mahecic claimed that the UN can do little do prevent abuses, noting that “the mere suggestion that the UN can somehow control the situation in a war zone and the implied conclusion that we can somehow turn this on and off is rather simplistic,” continuing on to say that “it is disconnected from the reality of what an aid operation looks like in an open and fierce conflict.”

[Excerpts from a Council on Foreign Relations blog]

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