A shelter for victims of sexual abuse in Goma, DRC A shelter for victims of sexual abuse in Goma, DRC Photo credit: UN Photo/Marie Frechon
Sexual exploitation and abuse by UN, NGO and INGO personnel: a self-assessment
by Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse June 2012

Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers and peacekeepers represents a catastrophic failure of protection. It brings harm to the very people the UN, NGOs and international organisations are mandated to protect and jeopardises the reputation of these organisations. It also violates universally recognised international legal norms and standards. Although not a new phenomenon, sexual exploitation and abuse was brought to the forefront of public attention in 2002 following allegations of widespread abuse of refugee and internally displaced women and children by humanitarian workers and peacekeepers in West Africa. Since then, the international community has taken action to address the shortcomings of existing mechanisms to prevent such abuses.

In 2009, members of the Executive Committees on Humanitarian Affairs and Peace and Security (ECHA/ECPS) Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) requested the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) to undertake a review of efforts in this area and to identify the extent to which policies have been implemented. The review, completed in 2010, also looked at the impact of the activities, policies, strategies and tools the Task Force had undertaken or developed, including the High Level Conference on PSEA in December 2006, the production of the awareness-raising film To Serve with Pride, the adoption of the United Nations Victim Assistance Strategy in December 2008 and the launch of the PSEA website (http://www.un.org/en/pseataskforce).

The review included personnel from the United Nations, nongovernmental organisations, the International Organisation for Migration and the International Federation of the Red Cross, as well as peacekeeping and development partners. An external review facilitator worked with 14 agencies to help them conduct self-assessments of their own policies and guidelines and the direction and support being provided to their field offices. Field research was conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nepal, and desk research was carried out for five additional countries.

Findings and challenges

The results of the review indicated that much more needed to be done to protect affected populations from sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian actors. It also found that, while progress had been made on establishing policies, this had not translated into adequate managerial and staff understanding and acceptance of those policies. Managers and other personnel demonstrated an inconsistent understanding of their obligations with regard to the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse by their own staff.

iasc-1The most critical gap in organisational support to PSEA was visible senior management leadership. The review found that it was crucial that senior managers actively promote PSEA policies and proactively support PSEA activities, while holding their staff accountable for the implementation of these measures. The review also highlighted that, with very few exceptions (namely peacekeeping missions), community-level awareness-raising and complaints mechanisms were not in place. Without these, affected people cannot lodge complaints. These findings reinforced earlier studies highlighting under-reporting of allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of aid workers.+See No One To Turn To: The Under-reporting of Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Aid workers and Peacekeepers, Save the Children UK, 2008; and To Complain Or Not To Complain: Still the Question. Consultations with Humanitarian Aid Beneficiaries On Their Perceptions of Efforts To Prevent and Respond To Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, HAP International, June 2008.

Another key finding was that preventive and responsive measures had not been implemented effectively. Head offices had not given clear directives to staff in the field on PSEA or supported their directives with adequate guidance and training, and managers were not being held accountable for policy implementation.


The review recommends that resourcing for the implementation of fundamental PSEA instruments should be provided by adding PSEA components to every Consolidated Appeal Process and Flash Appeals, and through pooled funding to support inter-agency PSEA work. The review also recommends a relaunch of the Secretary General’s Bulletin on sexual exploitation and abuse (ST/SGB/2003/13), which is not sufficiently known or understood at field level. The campaign should be reinforced by the prominent participation of senior humanitarians and agency leaders.

While the review asserts that the fundamental responsibility for ensuring that PSEA obligations are met must remain at the individual agency level, it concludes that the advancement of PSEA within the humanitarian community would be best served if the IASC were to resume its leadership on the issue, in order to engage humanitarian leaders at the highest level. Although the main focus under the Task Force is the humanitarian arena, membership also includes peacekeeping and development actors so that the issue is addressed in all areas and partnerships. In addition to the necessary scale-up at individual agency level, the review proposes a pilot in five locations to put PSEA mechanisms in place and to monitor outcomes.

Based on the recommendations of the review, the IASC created a new Task Force on PSEA, involving all IASC members (the UN, NGOs, the IOM and the Red Cross Federation) and development and peacekeeping agencies. The objectives of the Task Force are three-fold:

  • to strengthen leadership on PSEA by supporting agency heads to implement PSEA obligations;
  • to support field offices in implementing community-based complaints mechanisms (including victim assistance); and
  • to support agencies in institutionalising PSEA within their organisation.

Global activities and progress on PSEA

Individual organisations have engaged in several activities on PSEA, including awareness-raising sessions for staff and securing senior management support. Examples include a UN Development Programme (UNDP) global awareness campaign in October 2010; meanwhile, the Interaction Sub-Working Group on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse has developed a Step by Step Guide to Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, a tool for NGOs to develop policies and procedures to address SEA within their organisations, and a programme to build the capacity of NGOs to address SEA through the development of curricula and e-learning materials, as well as hosting skillbuilding workshops.+There are several additional resources and examples of good practice on the Task Force website at www.un.org/pseataskforce.

Following the HAP-commissioned study Change Starts with Us, Talk to Us!, published in 2010, the findings of the IASC review and discussions with stakeholders, a change in the HAP Statute was proposed to HAP members during the General Assembly held in Geneva on 13 May 2011.+Change Starts with US is available at http://www.hapinternational.org/pool/files/change-starts-with-us.pdf. In particular, it was proposed that the HAP membership obligations be expanded to include the requirement to have a staff Code of Conduct in place which refers specifically to sexual exploitation and abuse. This was to be included in agencies’ existing accountability frameworks and annual progress reports to HAP. Members accepted this change at the General Assembly. HAP also organised a conference on PSEA in May 2011 to reaffirm the role and commitments of senior managers, to present an update on best practice and to establish consensus and collaboration between all the key stakeholders to strengthen action for PSEA.

UN peacekeeping efforts

In peacekeeping missions considerable resources have been devoted to ensuring that managers are trained, receive support and are required to ensure that mechanisms on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse by mission personnel are in place. Leaders within UN peacekeeping missions are aware that they will be held accountable through their performance management systems should they fail to implement measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse.+For additional information see http://cdu.unlb.org.

The Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) was formally established in the Department of Field Support in 2007 following the initial formation of a Conduct and Discipline Team in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in 2005. CDU maintains global oversight of the state of discipline in all peacekeeping operations and special political missions. It provides overall direction for conduct and discipline issues in field missions, including formulating policies, training and outreach activities and handling allegations of misconduct. Conduct and Discipline Teams (CDTs) in field missions act as principal advisers to the heads of mission on conduct and discipline issues involving all categories of personnel. The CDTs address all forms of misconduct by United Nations peacekeeping personnel, including sexual exploitation and abuse.+See http://cdu.unlb.org/AboutCDU/MissionsCoveredbyConductandDisciplineTeams.aspx.

Kenya’s In-Country Network+Information shared by Christine Uyoga, National Coordinator, PSEA.

Twenty-six agencies have joined together to form an In-Country Network on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (ICN PSEA) in Kenya. Established after the violence that followed elections in 2007, the ICN is designed to strengthen the quality and accountability of humanitarian partners in Kenya. The Network functions under the auspices of the Resident Coordinator, and is cochaired by the Kenya Red Cross Society and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Its members include UN agencies, government ministries, civil society organisations and international NGOs.

The ICN is the primary body for coordination and oversight on preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse by international or national staff of the UN or affiliated organisations. Its members meet every quarter to discuss issues, plan joint activities and make recommendations on particular accountability and quality issues. Activities of note include a presentation of the Teachers Service Commission of Kenya (Ministry of Education) to share the results of an overview of its procedures and policies for addressing child sexual abuse by teachers. The Commission is now creating awareness and sensitising other Ministry of Education departments and affiliates. The National Council for Children’s Services, the Department of Children’s Services (Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs) and the Teacher Service Appeals Tribunal have all become members of the ICN. The Network is also training representatives from the Ministry of State for Special Programmes and the National Disaster Operations Centre on how to mainstream PSEA while responding to the current drought emergency. UNHCR is working with the Kenya Police to increase border patrols and deploy female officers in Northern Kenya (Dadaab).

PSEA Network in Liberia

The network on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse in Liberia includes international NGOs and UN member organisations. In June 2006, the UN country team pooled funds to hire a full-time expert on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel. This Coordination Officer brought together UN agencies and NGOs to oversee the implementation of the UN Secretary-General’s Bulletin on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (ST/SGB/2003/13) and the zero-tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse. Since 2008, the new Coordinator is a United Nations Volunteer, but is still paid for through pooled funds and continues to work closely with the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and NGO partners. The national sexual and gender-based violence task force is chaired by the Ministry of Gender and meets monthly. Its membership includes UN agencies and national and international NGOs, in addition to representatives of the government of Liberia.

Ways forward

The IASC Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse has prepared a funding proposal for a pilot project to develop and implement community-based complaint mechanisms. According to the co-chairs: ‘We are convinced that if we ask the communities what mechanisms they would feel safe to report misconduct by our own staff we will be able to not only address under-reporting but also have an immense preventive impact’.