A Tale of a Humanitarian Patriarchy


Aid workers have become rapists. This is what the public has learned from the recent Oxfam scandal that uncovered widespread sexual abuse by their staff toward the local population in Haiti. The issue has sparked global outrage over why humanitarian workers are capable of hurting the people they are supposed to assist. While this tragic issue deserves all the media attention it has gotten, there is an unrecognized aspect to the story: aid workers themselves can be survivors of sexual violence at the hands of their colleagues.

Between 2015 and 2017, more than 1,000 humanitarian aid workers self-reported their experiences with sexual harassment and violence on the Report the Abuse platform. 72% of the respondents self-identified as survivors of sexual violence.

Looking at the geographical distribution where these attacks originated, two striking features are present. First, most attacks take place in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria. Second, most of these countries have a persistently high level of gender inequality in their societies. The aforementioned countries share the worst rankings on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Index, indicating a low rate of inclusion, access to justice, and overall security for women.

At first, it might not be surprising that aid workers experience more sexual harassment in countries marked by hostile environments against women. But there is another twist to the story. According to survivor testimonies, most perpetrators were their colleagues from the same organization, or staff working for another aid organization.

Patriarchal societies are marked by two persistent features: A prevailing culture of gender inequality and a strong notion of masculinity. Hostile sentiments against women and tenacious masculine sentiments can act as a reinforcing mechanism toward outsiders. A small number of people with those attitudes can motivate others to adapt a similar mindset.

This means that expatriate staff who may have been socialized in societies with greater gender equality may acclimate to the local, more masculine culture. Only very few men, like outsiders or local staff, must hold this macho-driven, patriarchal mindset in the environment in order for other staff members to be at risk of adopting similar mindsets.

Research on the military demonstrates that stressful environments with a high degree of violence can pressure members to adapt to a stronger notion of masculinity, which ultimately increases the number of sexual violence incidents. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, members of the armed forces stated that rape was a way to vent frustrations and aggressions, and demonstrate power and masculinity, paired with sexual need and desire.

Aid workers may relate to that too because they work under similarly extreme, fragile, and life-threatening conditions. Humanitarian efforts often take place in misogynistic and macho-driven cultures.

On top of that, during times of conflict order and rule of law are mal- or non-functioning, and chaotic situations create opportunities for misconduct because the risk of legal consequences is diminished. For many perpetrators, be it aid workers or not, this is an opportunity to rape with impunity, because order, norms, and social structures shift or break down.

Finally, a majority of staff of aid agencies are male, and the higher the position the fewer women there are at that level of authority. Aid agencies clearly lack formal procedures to prevent sexual harassment or support survivors after an incident. This enhances a culture of acceptance toward sexual harassment by ignoring, mismanaging or even initiating incidents as supervisors.

Ultimately, this may also explain the recent events of sexual harassment and assault initiated by aid workers toward the local population. Policy makers in the aid sector should put more focus on what dynamics in humanitarian emergencies enhance a behaviour that leads to sexual violence instead of pointing fingers in disbelief at individuals. The problem is systemic and affects the humanitarian sector as a whole, aid workers as well as beneficiaries. It is time to press for progress in the humanitarian sector.

Melanie Sauter is a PhD researcher in political science at the European University Institute in Florence. The present blog article reflects the findings of a forthcoming research article that explores how humanitarian organizations could better end sexual harassment and violence in their work environment.