The sexual abuse of women and girls by international aid workers and peacekeepers has been “endemic” across the sector for years, targeting both staffers and locals, as perpetrators jump virtually undetected among humanitarian NGOs, according to a report by the U.K.’s House of Commons International Development Committee.
The inquiry was ordered in February after serious allegations of sexual misconduct were reported at Oxfam and other NGOs this year. A report came to light in February that Oxfam staff had paid for prostitutes during its Haiti earthquake-relief mission in 2010. The Red Cross announced that same month that at least 21 staff members were dismissed or resigned after “paying for sexual services” in the past three years.
“The exact scale [of the abuse] is currently impossible to define” due to “confirmed under-reporting,” according to the inquiry, which was published on Tuesday.
But atrocious stories are plentiful. In one example from Haiti in 2007: “There is a girl who sleeps in the street...They took her to a man who works for an NGO. He gave her one American dollar and the little girl was happy to see the money. It was 2 in the morning. The man took her and raped her. In the morning, the little girl could not walk.”
These stories are likely “the tip of the iceberg,” the inquiry claims.
“It is particularly horrifying to find evidence of personnel from the aid and security sectors perpetrating these abuses rather than combating them,” the report states. “There seems to be a strong tendency for victims and whistleblowers, rather than perpetrators, to end up feeling penalized.”
Stephen Twigg, a member of parliament and chairman of the committee, told CNN the report laid out “the collective failure over a period of at least 16 years by the aid sector to address sexual exploitation and abuse.”
The organizations, he continued, had often put “their reputation ahead of women, children, and other victims of sexual exploitation and abuse.”
Caroline Thomson, Oxfam’s chairwoman of trustees, released a statement to CNN, conceding that the new inquiry made for “incredibly painful reading.”
“Oxfam exists to help improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people; we know we failed to protect vulnerable women in Haiti, and we accept we should have reported more clearly at the time—for that we are truly sorry,” Thomson wrote. “We have made improvements since 2011 but recognize we have further to go. The committee is right to challenge all of us in the sector to do better.”
The inquiry concludes that “a culture of zero tolerance must go hand in hand with a culture of transparency.”
“It is vital that aid organizations are fully open about the number of sexual exploitation and abuse allegations they receive and how these allegations are dealt with,” the report states. “This is fundamental for developing a better understanding across the sector about when sexual exploitation and abuse is happening, and the most effective ways of responding to it.”