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23 March 2018 01:33 (South Africa)
Opinionista Muhammad Sheik

Oxfam’s admission of sexual abuse is symptomatic of deeply entrenched social issues

  • Muhammad Sheik
    Muhammad Sheik

    Muhammad Sheik is a Masters researcher in International Relations at UKZN specialising in Sino-Iranian Relations and is also a radio producer and broadcaster. 

The international NGO sector is a multi-billion dollar industry and one vital to the survival, stabilisation and reconstruction of communities globally, but what happens when those tasked with providing relief become the perpetrators of abuse?

The term “non-governmental organisation” (NGO) was created under Article 71 of the Charter of the newly formed United Nations in 1945. An NGO can be any kind of organisation provided that it is independent from government influence and is not for profit.

Global disparities in wealth and inequality, environmental catastrophes and an increase in global populations make the need for a transparent, effective and inclusive aid agenda vital. According to the National Forum of NGOs there are an estimated 10-million non-governmental organisations worldwide. If NGOs were a country, they would have the fifth largest economy in the world. Nearly one in three (31.5%) people worldwide donated to charity in 2015 and one in four people (24%) volunteered. Gender inequalities at senior management levels are still profound within the NGO sector. Three out of every four employees are female, but the majority of leadership positions at NGOs are still predominantly held by men.

The hierarchical structure of NGOs today paint a picture of a continuation of male stereotypes while issues pertaining to race and identity are still being grappled with in a grossly simplistic manner. These ideas have largely given credence to the patriarchal norms still occupying the hallways, boardrooms and aid camps of some of the world’s largest and most influential humanitarian organisations.

In 2011 reports surfaced of incidents of sexual abuse by Oxfam staff in Haiti. Three members accused of sexual exploitation threatened another to remain silent regarding the witnessing of sexual misconduct and abhorrent displays of misogyny by aid workers toward local Haitian women. After sustained pressure and an internal investigation aimed at portraying transparency within the organisation, Oxfam released a redacted report online this week detailing the incidents but leaving out the names of the seven accused until the full report is handed over to Haitian authorities. According to Oxfam the report is a result of interviews with over 40 witnesses.

Perhaps the most scathing indictment against Oxfam’s management policies is the deal extended to former country director Roland van Hauwermeiren, who has been accused of “negligence and failure to safeguard employees – in particular, female employees” as well as using sex workers while on aid missions. In allowing Van Hauwermeiren to quietly resign in exchange for "helping with the inquiry Oxfam has effectively ensured its complicity in these crimes. Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam GB, said Roland van Hauwermeiren was offered a “phased and dignified exit”. Phased and dignified? Give me a break. After what he had done, he should have been publicly masqueraded and shamed. Where is the dignity of the victims he so blatantly used and discarded? This doesn’t just play into the powerful, exploitative male narrative we have so come to loathe but is an accurate representation of the dilemma facing women across the world that are no safer around aid workers and missionaries than they are around abusive spouses, rebels and soldiers.

The truth is that many millions of aid workers do phenomenal work in helping to rehabilitate, counsel and uplift the voiceless masses often found in hopeless situations. It is a few misogynistic bigots who have besmeared the good name of a fine and noble calling.

The Oxfam report no doubt evokes powerful emotions, no doubt shock will be among those, but should we really be shocked?

While recently reporting from the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh I witnessed first hand this white saviour narrative. It has become the plot for so many western inspired films where white protagonist (in most cases a man) is portrayed as a messianic figure who often learns something about him or herself while bringing life saving aid to the beleaguered masses. It’s the feel good, tear jerking storyline we’ve become so accustomed to. From Rambo to the Machine gun Preacher it’s a tired old plot.

One of the biggest scandals to plague the United Nations in recent years has been the systematic rape and torture of young women in Bangui in the Central African Republic.

Since the UN peacekeeping mission began in 2014, its employees have been formally accused of sexually abusing or exploiting 42 local civilians, most of them under-age girls. In a scathing expose by Washington Post bureau chief in Nairobi Kevin Sieff in 2016, the emboldened headline read “Sometimes when I’m alone with my baby I think about killing him. He reminds me of the man who raped me”. These are the words of a 14 year-old girl.

During their investigations United Nations officials tasked with documenting and reporting the atrocities recorded these cases not as rape but as “transactional” sex, in which acts are exchanged for money or food.

New Zealand-born UN doctor Andrew Thomson said that upon seeing the extent to which young lives had been shattered by the sexual exploitation of UN peacekeepers began telling villagers: “If blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run.” The quote is now used as part of Conflict and Transformation Studies modules in universities across the world. The book he co-authored entitled Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell On Earth was published in October 2004 in a shroud of controversy as officials as high up as Kofi Annan tried to stop the book from being published.

The Oxfam report doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t known, except to say that it should appal us no less. The investigation and its findings speak not only to questions of gender and sexual misconduct but to issues of ethnicity and identity politics which cut to the heart of the current state of refugees globally. The mistreatment of innocent people through patriarchal notions of power and authority brings to the surface a harsh and truly terrifying reality that NGOs have simply not confronted with enough seriousness.

On the one hand, ethnicity is considered a primordial or inherited group characteristic that some scholars would argue is biologically based. On the other hand, ethnicity has been conceptualised as an instrument, a contextual, fluid and negotiable aspect of identity, as Emeritus Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Michael Pugh states, “a tool used by individuals, groups, or elites to obtain some larger, typically material end”.

The hierarchical structure of aid organisations such as Oxfam reveal realities which are symptomatic of deeper societal issues. The latest expose is testament to these societal misconceptions. Gender neutrality has been viewed as an effective tool but can also be viewed as a cop-out. Most organisations use the term not to stamp out discrimination but to avoid engaging with gender issues. It is implemented to appease rights groups and appear compliant while maintaining the same social composition it always has. Excuses are no longer good enough, change is needed now. DM

Muhammad Sheik is a Current Affairs Producer/Presenter at Cii Radio and is currently studying towards his Masters in International Relations. He reads a lot, sleeps a little and never forgets to stop and smell the roses.

  • Muhammad Sheik
    Muhammad Sheik

    Muhammad Sheik is a Masters researcher in International Relations at UKZN specialising in Sino-Iranian Relations and is also a radio producer and broadcaster. 

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