Over the past year, women of different backgrounds, working in various industries have joined the #MeToo movement, aimed at holding accountable those responsible for sexual harassment of women. The movement has given a platform for women survivors of violence to be silent no more; a support network for victims to be heard and collective calls to action against power structures to uphold abuse.
The global aid sector has not been left out either. #AidToo exposed sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and general toxic working environments that women are subjected to in an industry that is male dominated. Key players in the sector like Oxfam, Save the Children found themselves in the media storm for months after exposure of their employees involvement in sexual abuse and exploitation. These reports and the push for aid sector to go beyond lip service when it comes to women’s rights have seen many rush to put in places fixes and some publicly admitting failure. This has forced a conversation that had earlier not been possible and many women in the sector had to choose silence when faced with these unfavourable working conditions.
However as women have exposed the cover up and participation of top level managers in sexual harassment cases in various organizations, in some cases we have seen push backs. Miriam Maluwa, Ethiopia Country Director for UNAIDS was put on administrative leave after supporting a sexual assault investigation against a UN Assistant Secretary General. It is later said that her dismissal is related to gross misdemeanour and abuse of her role during her posting. This information surfaced following her testimony to the sexual harassment case, which generates many questions with regards to the relationship between the two.
The aid sector just like the rest of our global interconnected society is an example of different power systems. While generally women have faced sexism, women who are minorities are women of colour. Considering that majority aid work actually happens in the global south, the lack of representation in leadership roles of people from these regions is just ironic and has consequences. Often, the outer world is shocked when campaigns from aid sector maintain a racist, condescending view and narrative of the people in places where aid is needed, but it is not rooted in nothing. The power imbalance in the aid sector puts the global north especially what is known as the western world in the lead and having a say. This power imbalance has an impact on those who are least represented- Africans and African women in particular.
Angela Bruce-Raeburn is the former Senior Policy Advisor for the Humanitarian Response in Haiti at Oxfam America and in the wake of the Oxfam scandal in Haiti provided one of the most sound takes on how racism and sexism intersect in the aid sector. She argues that the lack of diversity has enabled “mainly white men to ascend to positions of leadership. The country offices – like the one in Haiti – are kingdoms unto themselves, where the country director, who is more times than not white, male, European or American, is the king. The leadership of country offices often reflect the makeup of the organization’s headquarters, not the country itself, with lower positions filled by local people.”
Raeburn describes the power inside global development organizations where local staff are hardly heard in a leadership hierarchy that most often excludes people from the very affected region.
“Diversity is not only about gender or race, but it must include life experience and emotional intelligence. International organizations like Oxfam must stop pretending that diversity is a binary choice between qualified white males and unqualified minorities.”
This inequitable power breeds the laxity in accountability and the repercussions are immense for those at the bottom of the power ladder. Some of us cannot count the times we have sat with an African woman working in the aid sector and heard the inequalities and abuse in the workplace. Sexual harassment in the sector is getting the attention it deserves but what makes up a toxic working environment includes bullying and the everyday micro-aggressions that are meant to put you in ‘your place’. Those that show you the old boys- club is not old at all; it is alive and well. It is the realization that your kind being in leadership positions in this sector is yet to transcend beyond symbolism and tokenism.
African Feminism will host two guest blogs and a piece by our writer Rosebell Kagumire this week, on African women’s experiences in the aid sector, as a follow-up to this piece. Keep tuned!
If you’re interested in sharing experiences and reflections of African women in the aid sector, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.