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Sex abuse cases stalk aid sector with dozens fired

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Aid groups say even with strict policies to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, most admit it remains an under-reported issue, writes Lin Taylor

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As sexual harassment scandals hit Hollywood and beyond, reports of abuse have also rocked the charity sector, with two major aid groups revealing they sacked dozens of staff members over sexual misconduct in the last year.

International humanitarian group Save the Children said it fired 16 staff members over reports of sexual harassment in the past year.The aid agency was the only charity contacted that publicly revealed these figures. British aid group Oxfam last week said it dismissed 22 staff in the year ending April 2017.

Other charities declined to reveal the number of sex abuse cases they had received, with some saying these figures were not centrally collated, or were handled by a third party.

Save the Children said it received 31 allegations of sex abuse over the last year, and referred 10 cases to authorities. “Unfortunately, there are incidents of sexual harassment in every sector and every country around the world, and the aid sector is no exception,” a spokeswoman for Save The Children said in an email.

“We welcome transparency and accountability in the international development and humanitarian sector,” added the group, which employs about 25,000 people around the world.

Aid groups International Committee of the Red Cross, Plan International, Care International, Norwegian Refugee Council and Mercy Corps said in email statements that they had strict policies to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, but most admitted it remained an under-reported issue.

The International Rescue Committee and World Vision had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publishing.

Britain’s charity regulator said aid groups must to do more to foster a culture of safety to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.

“The public places high levels of trust in charities, and expects those running them to strive for the highest standards of management and care,” a spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said in an email statement. “Any incidents or allegations of abuse or harassment within charities risk undermining a charity’s reputation and public trust in charities generally, particularly if they are not handled with the due care and attention.”

Oxfam said it dealt with 87 claims of sexual exploitation and abuse involving its workers in the year ending April 2017, a 36 percent increase on the previous year. The charity employs more than 5,000 people worldwide.

It said it referred 53 complaints to police and other services, while 33 were internally investigated, with about three-quarters resulting in disciplinary action.

The UN last week said 31 new sexual abuse cases were filed between July and September for events stretching back at least three years. Most cases involved staff at UN refugee agency UNHCR, but personnel from children’s agency Unicef and  IOM were also included, though not all of the allegations have been verified and some are in preliminary assessment phase.

A 2016 survey of 1,000 female aid workers at 70 organisations found about one in two had experienced persistent sexual advances or unwanted touching at least once in their careers while on a mission.

Less than a third reported the incidents, with most saying they remained silent out of fear for their career. Others cited shame, luck of trust in the system and the absence of a report mechanism.

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