“HUMAN beings are not property… let us reaffirm the inherent dignity of all men, women, and children. And let us redouble our efforts so that the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — ‘no one shall be held in slavery or servitude’ — ring true.”
Lately, some aid agencies have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Some of their staff have accused of perverse behaviour on duty — they were found offering handouts in exchange for sexual favours. Adding to the shock, however, is the way honchos at these human aid organisations have been trying to explain away this perversity. They are offering alibis like the loneliness of these men, their long deployment away from families, or for being stationed in distant, inhospitable terrains, etc.
Can any of these factors hide the fact that these are the people supposed to be acting as the “protectors” of human dignity, the ones tasked with —and, of course, drawing their salaries for— providing succor to the unfortunate victims of dire circumstances not of their making, in conflict zones, in areas hit by natural calamities, etc.?
Of course not.
The recent revelations by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), that as many as 23 of its staff members had left since 2015 over sexual misconduct charges, make it the latest humanitarian organisation to be hit by abuse allegations. This has virtually shaken the aid sector exposing once more the deep-rooted fault lines that keep popping up every now and then. Sierra Leone, Chad, Liberia, Central African Republic, Haiti… the list is long. A fairly long one at that.
As it turns out, a large number of local women in countries with substantial presence of aid agencies have been made to work as “sex workers”, often in exchange for handouts, and in some cases, even for food.
There have been well documented cases of UN peacekeepers sexually abusing local women with the victims including children as well.
A recent incident involves British charity Oxfam’s country director in Haiti, who has admitted to using sex workers at his residence during a relief mission.
This is a breach of trust of humongous proportions. If those working with humanitarian aid agencies can indulge in sexual exploitation of women, abusing them, forcing them into submission, can we expect the fight against the global trafficking mafia going anywhere in the desired direction? It’s too dreadful a thought, frankly. But this precisely is what has hit us in the face.
Across the nooks and corners of the globe, in situations of natural or man-made adversities, women are being forced into sexual slavery, sometimes reported, often unreported, wherein they have had to forsake control over their very own bodies.
It’s the tale of an unequal and exploitative transaction where the victim hardly has a choice. That there have been instances of women —as well as children— being made to offer sexual services in exchange for food, is a case in point.
Even otherwise, these transactions paint an imbalance of power wherein local women’s vulnerability in conflict zones is exploited to the hilt. These unfortunate beings are being termed as “sex workers” while they cannot even comprehend the exploitative context in which these crimes are being committed.
When it comes to conflicts, mankind has been known to be fighting its wars on the bodies of the women. History is replete with these incidents. It’s been happening in the present. And, it’ll likely continue like this in the foreseeable future unless the men-folk change their mindset. It’s precisely such a mindset that goads an aid worker into offering food to a deprived woman in exchange for sex.
However, what this kind of depravity does is to prevent the light of civilisation from travelling through the conflict zones of our “modern” world.
That’s the kind of message that emanates, for example, from the scandal involving the ICRC, which has more than 17,000 staff worldwide and, as such, bans its staff from paying for sexual services. Or, for that matter, the UN peacekeeping missions, agencies, funds and programmes and the implementing partners, that have time and again faced allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse.
With the trickle of allegations now turning into a torrent, and the involvement of even those holding top positions coming into the open, it seems to have forced the system to call for an emergency action.
Whether such as a course-corrective action is delivered in a fool-proof way is another debate altogether.
While aid agency bosses have promised to crack down on such elements, one would argue, it’s time for immediate, correctional steps towards global safeguarding practices and policies. It’s about creating a culture where those tasked with helping the distraught never ever stooped to such levels where they themselves metamorphosed into exploitative devils.
And to the countless vulnerable women out there, a quote from an Anonymous:
‘Don’t let those wicked men win,
don’t let them destroy you…
(This article was first published on the Edit page of Qatar Tribune on March 4, 2018)