This is the last piece in our three-part series this week on sexual harassment in the workplace.
A recent informal coffee meeting with a male colleague who also works in international development turned into a candid and difficult conversation. The topic was about the sexual harassment scandals in the development and humanitarian aid sector that have been the subject of much news and conversation over the last few months. I had been looking forward to hearing his perspective because of his background working in humanitarian aid, and as someone employed by one of the INGOs recently hit by these scandals.
He said that recent sexual harassment stories were “just politics.” He said that as long as it is not rape or murder, humans have needs and desires and people working in the development and humanitarian sector were not any different. Thwarted, speechless, but not shocked by his views; I probed further and learned that he views the scandals as normalized culture, and thinks most of the men accused “were being judged unfairly.” Disappointingly, he concluded our conversation by saying that majority of his male colleagues felt the same way. His views are worrying but are still held by many, including some in the sector. People who hold such views either do not understand how power works, want to preserve the status quo, or both.
This conversation confirmed my fears about reactions to these recent events in the sector: that we haven’t yet had the really difficult and honest conversations about the sector’s many flaws. And in the limited places where these important conversations are happening, they’re mostly at the international level with very few happening at the national and local levels where these abuses of power – sexism, objectification, racism, bullying, and a lack of transparency and accountability – often happen. The task at hand for us now is to address these issues and change behaviors and attitudes of people like this gentleman.
I was fueled by this exchange to hear more perspectives from the Global South about the issue. So I reached out to eight colleagues working in development and humanitarian organizations in a diverse set of developing countries to get their thoughts on the scandals and their ideas for solutions and next steps.
Voices from the South
Among those I spoke with, there was general agreement that sexual harassment is a form of abuse of power and is not new to the sector. Some feel that the sector should be investing more in tackling these flaws in the same measure it invests in ‘doing good’ the right way for vulnerable communities it serves – more like a yearning for every actor to walk the talk from individual behaviour to organizational culture.
They all highlighted a need to strengthen human resource policies at the organizational and sectoral level; as well as recognize and teach employees about the power imbalances and privileges many carry to the work they do. Most of them appreciated steps organizations like Oxfam are doing to team up with feminist leaders in their efforts to strengthen organizational policies, and increase the number of women working in positions of power.
Others called for greater emphasis on establishment of independent, accessible, and trustworthy systems that assure security and protection for those reporting harassment or abuse of power, especially if the offender is someone in a leadership position.
“An unbiased, un-invaded, and knowledgeable Sexual Harassment Committee at workplaces should be formed to combat and convey the implications of being sexist or contributing to harassment directly or indirectly…it is one of the strategies to protect workers’ rights,” said Karuna Dayal, who works on women and children’s rights in New Delhi. They emphasized a need for strong and incorruptible accountability systems that bring perpetrators to account; and called for accountability systems that push governments to step up and protect their citizens by engaging with donors beyond financial transactions to hold organizations they fund to account – especially when such incidences occur – to establish mutual respect instead of white saviour attitudes.
But first, we should lead by example.
“If we say we want to change, let us be willing to hold ourselves to account by leading by example as ‘do gooders’… Let’s first right the wrongs of our mistakes before we preach to others about justice or equality…it all begins by us first unlearning our internal biases and prejudices we bring to this work,” said another feminist humanitarian working in Darfur, Sudan and wished to remain anonymous.
The biggest challenge ahead: our own biases
For many, the challenge ahead is in changing mindsets and attitudes of people working in the sector, especially those that work directly with vulnerable communities. To tackle this, some alluded to addressing the biases and misconceptions we bring to the work we do. Like me, they believe we should be pushing for the honest conversations we have thus far mostly failed to have about our innate perceptions, prejudices, and unconscious biases we carry, especially because this work necessarily includes working with partners, communities, and individuals with less power. Most of these biases are rooted in postcolonial white saviour industrial complex, and influence the way many of us interact with others in the sector, including the communities we seek to serve. If we open up these conversations, we will be allowed to confront deep rooted biases that influence how we view or interpret perspectives of people different from us; and even how we make judgements about what to act upon and what to overlook. It will also enable us understand depth of these beliefs and attitudes to draw best strategies forward.
Winfred Ngabire, the Executive Director of Global Rights Alert, recommended that a starting point should be a focus on solutions that teach others about their worth and self-esteem regardless of their identity. “The belief that I am worthy and so is the other person. The belief that one can speak out, and when they speak out, the voices should be heard and acted on,” she says.
This alludes to the idea some interviewees conveyed that individuals should be given tools and information that empowers them to exercise their agency to protect their dignity. They recommended community-generated and community centered solutions.
“We should change the approach of humanitarian work from paternalistic to participatory; recognizing cultural norms that create vulnerable spaces for women to be taken advantage of: i.e. not being raised to own their bodies and what happens to it – and address this at the community level so that women gradually accept and believe they are more than sexual beings to be used at one’s discretion,” says Wanneh Dixon, with experience working in Africa developing strategic partnerships that support change in the development sector.
Once this is addressed, the result will be less complacency for sexual harassment and not falling prey to cheap opportunities in form of finances or shelter offered by visiting expats, she adds.
It is time for us to have realistic, actionable steps that give vulnerable communities their agency while addressing power imbalances entrenched in patriarchy and the white saviour complex – only then will we be able to fully live out the values we hold as a sector.
Rehema Namukose is a policy advocate and global youth leader with global-level expertise and experience leading and supporting policy advocacy and communication efforts on a wide range of issues that include; women’s rights, youth leadership and empowerment, and social justice and accountability in different parts of the world. She has worked under various capacities with organizations such as Women Deliver, White Ribbon Alliance, and World Learning. Rehema has an MA in Sustainable Development from SIT Graduate Institute and a Bachelor in Mass Communication from Makerere University.