Sexual Violence Shouldn’t Be a Risk of Being a Humanitarian

Humanitarian work carries a number of risks. By entering conflict zones, we expect to be exposed to bombing, riots and gunshots. We prepare for these types of risks. What we do not expect—nor should we—is sexual violence, from our colleagues and the local population.

European Commission DG ECHO / Creative Commons

It might come as a surprise to those outside the industry, but emerging data suggests that sexual violence is not only a very real risk, but also a common one for humanitarians. Currently 86 percent of humanitarian aid workers report knowing a colleague who has experienced sexual violence in the course of their work.

On the last night before I left for R&R, a program manager from another organization came into my tent while I was asleep, climbed into my bed naked and raped me. I was questioned as to why I hadn’t reported it directly to the staff of the local agency (all men, some of who reported to the man who raped me) or tell my driver or program officers (all male, and all my subordinates). They wanted to know why my tent hadn’t been locked, why I didn’t call and report it immediately as it happened, why I didn’t fight back more.

67 percent of humanitarians currently report that they know their attacker. 58 percent of their attackers are colleagues. While 63 percent of these incidents are sexual violence, 10 percent are also rape, and with 30 percent of survivors reporting they’ve had more than one experience, it is an issue that cannot continue to be ignored.

I discussed it with colleagues immediately. I felt terrible because they belittled me, made a joke out of my experience, and told me I should use sexual harassment to my advantage to get what I/the organization wanted.

The current data suggests that employers and colleagues do not react well to incidents of sexual violence. It is not uncommon for a survivor to be fired for reporting sexual violence. Quitting to escape a hostile work environment is another common outcome. The survivors themselves often seek physical and psychosocial care; sometimes with little to no assistance from their employer.

As for the perpetrators, when the incident involves a colleague there are numerous reports of individuals being promoted or moved to another country.

My organization handled this all very badly, which actually deepened the trauma. We were strongly advised not to go to the police nor to a medical facility because ̈that could get us into more trouble.

55 percent of survivors currently report that they file a complaint with their organizations. Of these survivors, only 15 percent report being satisfied with how the complaint is handled. Given that a study last year found that a mere 16 percent of 92 humanitarian organizations had a single mention of sexual violence even being a risk for their employees—let alone a systematic response or survivor-sensitive prevention or response strategy.

My rape will always be with me, it will always be a part of my story. I don’t want it to define me though or make me a victim, because that’s not what I am. I’m a survivor.

There is a reason for hope. Out of a growing number of survivors refusing to be silenced grew the first and only global NGO that focuses solely on the issue of sexual violence.

It will take time to create humanitarian workplaces that are safe from sexual violence—policies and procedures may be put in place, but the prevailing attitudes and office culture are slower to change—but it is a goal worth fighting for.


Megan Nobert is a Canadian legal professional and academic specialized in international criminal law and human rights. She is also a humanitarian, having worked in in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and South Sudan on issues of humanitarian law, protection and gender-based violence. Megan is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland, as Founder and Director of Report the Abuse, the first global NGO to work specifically on the issue of sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.