Issue 81 - Article 11

Advocating for the rights of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse

June 17, 2022

Jane Connors

The SVRO in the DRC, Mihaela-Aurelia Porumb, meets staff from the Community Based Complaint Mechanism in Beni, DRC.

Since its establishment almost 77 years ago, the United Nations’ (UN) role in conflict, humanitarian crisis and development has diversified and expanded. Throughout this time, victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN staff, non-staff personnel and those of humanitarian organisations have reported their experiences to the UN, civil society, the media and others. For over 20 years, the UN and partner organisations have developed and implemented increasingly comprehensive standards and policies to prevent and respond to these wrongs. These include the 2002 six Core Principles (revised in 2019) adopted by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) – the oversight body responsible for the interagency coordination of humanitarian assistance, to create an environment free of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in humanitarian crises – and the 2003 UN Secretary-General’s bulletin on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

In early 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched a new strategy to confront sexual exploitation and abuse, pledging to elevate the voices of victims and put their rights and dignity at the forefront of prevention and response. To operationalise these objectives, he appointed a system-wide Victims’ Rights Advocate to work with states, local authorities, UN entities and civil society to ensure that reliable, gender-sensitive pathways are in place for every victim or witness to complain, receive timely assistance and support, and access accountability processes and remedies. To embed the victims’ rights approach on the ground, the Secretary-General instructed that field victims’ rights advocates be designated in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti and South Sudan – the countries from which the highest number of cases had been reported. Recognising that SEA occurs where there is a power imbalance between UN personnel and affected populations, the Secretary-General encouraged the designation of field advocates in peace, humanitarian and development contexts where sexual exploitation and abuse required special measures. As in the case of the Victims’ Rights Advocate, field victims’ rights advocates operated in these countries from late 2017 but performed victims’ rights functions along with other duties. Senior Victims’ Rights Officers (SVROs), fully funded and dedicated to the victims’ rights advocacy role, have been in place since the end of November 2021. They work with, and under the direction of, the global Victims’ Rights Advocate to develop victim-centric policies, procedures and programmes. Most importantly, the officers are tasked with maintaining direct and regular contact with victims.

These advocates have demonstrated that the presence of a person on the ground tasked with prioritising victims’ rights – someone they trust and to whom they can turn for assistance, confident they will advocate on their behalf – makes a real difference to victims. The SVROs coordinate urgent medical care and psychosocial support; secure victims’ access to legal aid, including to resolve paternity and/or child maintenance claims; and arrange capacity-building for victims so they can generate income.

The SVRO in the CAR cooperates with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), UN funds, programmes and agencies, the protection from SEA task force and the gender-based violence (GBV) and child protection subclusters to coordinate prevention activities, assistance and support for victims and to foster information exchange among UN actors on victims’ cases. She interacts personally with victims to identify assistance needs and support referrals in Bangui and across the country, including in Alindao, Bambari, Bangassou, Mobaye and Pombolo. She follows up with them regularly and, building on the victims’ assistance tracking system that records engagement with victims of uniformed and civilian personnel and the support they receive, created a system-wide tracking tool she updates continually. She cooperates closely with service providers and local organisations, such as the Mukwege Foundation, to facilitate immediate and longer- term medical and psychosocial support for victims. She leads, and participates in, awareness-raising and outreach activities for communities throughout the country, UN colleagues, and international and local civil society organisations. These activities are directed at preventing sexual exploitation and abuse by highlighting the standards of conduct required of UN personnel, clarifying reporting pathways and flagging available support and assistance for victims. She also works with local partners to facilitate legal and related assistance, such as the issuance of birth certificates essential for school registration and the resolution of paternity and child maintenance claims.

In consultation with UN entities and local partners, and informed by discussions with victims, the SVRO develops project proposals to support victims and children born of SEA. Notably, a project to provide medical, psychosocial and educational support, capacity-building for income-generating activities and legal assistance for victims is under development to address the needs of victims of alleged widespread SEA, reported in September 2021, which led to the repatriation of the Gabonese contingent in line with Security Council resolution 2272 (2016). This will be funded by the Trust Fund in Support of Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, established by the Secretary-General in 2016 (A/69/799, para. 66). Further projects, which respond to expressed demands of victims for income-generating support and payment of school fees, are under development.

The SVRO contributed to the work of the multidisciplinary team established by the UN Secretariat to determine the factors generating the high number of allegations in the CAR and will take forward the team’s recommendations on the protection of, and support to, victims. In line with the good practice pioneered by the Investigations Division of the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) in the DRC, the SVRO accompanies victims during investigations into these and other allegations to provide emotional and practical support, information on available services and to ensure they are treated with dignity, including by making it clear that their choice and consent are preconditions to their participation in investigations. This practice helps to restore victims’ trust in the UN and has garnered the appreciation of investigators as it facilitates accountability processes.

In the DRC, the SVRO receives complaints from victims through community-based networks; collaborates with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNICEF to facilitate medical and psychosocial and other support for them through local partners; and maintains close contact with victims through calls and texts, even as they moved across the country and, in some cases, borders. She manages the implementation of multiple projects financed by the Trust Fund in Support of Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, most focusing on strengthening victims’ income-generation skills and educational support for children born of sexual exploitation and abuse. Through these projects, almost 400 women received training in tailoring, pastry-making, hairdressing and other skills, and around 86 children received education support. Victims say the income they have earned through their new skills has allowed them to make further investments, reintegrate into their communities and regain their dignity.

The SVRO in the DRC also facilitated the provision of assistance to victims harmed by UN and affiliated humanitarian workers responding to the tenth Ebola virus epidemic outbreak in the Eastern DRC and accompanied them as they cooperated with the OIOS investigators examining these events. She provided strong support to the independent commission established by the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate these incidents, and was part of the team, along with the WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA, which sought to identify gaps in victim support and to strengthen community awareness, networks and complaint mechanisms in November 2021. In addition, the SVRO supported victims in accountability processes, such as the in situ courts martial organised by one troop contributing country and its visit to the DRC to gather DNA samples from mothers and children for use in resolving outstanding paternity claims related to its personnel.

Based in Goma, the SVRO has forged strong partnerships with the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) components, the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Steering Committee and the UN entities which participate in the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Network (PSEA) (of which she is a member). She also cooperates closely with the interagency PSEA coordinator.

The SVRO is in almost daily contact with known victims, including through a dedicated WhatsApp account and her frequent visits to field offices. To encourage other victims to come forward, she maintains contact with communities, community-based complaint mechanisms, local authorities and service providers across the country, and conducts capacity-building and training sessions to support them. She also raises awareness of her role and that of the Victims’ Rights Advocate, especially their system-wide reach, with UN entities and implementing partners. These have included activities organised by the International Organization for Migration for managers of internally displaced persons’ camps on how to approach girls in vulnerable situations who might wish to report sexual exploitation and abuse and access assistance; several workshops on the UNICEF technical note on the Victims’ Assistance Protocol; and information-sharing and exchange across UN entities in the DRC.

The SVRO cooperates with colleagues to create trust fund projects, several of which are being crafted by IASC members, including UNFPA, and supports the implementation of those which are ongoing. She pursues the good practice of supporting victims in OIOS investigations, including the further investigations it is conducting (mostly in Beni in the north-east of the country) into the many allegations related to the Ebola response, pursuant to a memorandum of understanding between it and the WHO. She seeks to limit the number of times victims are interviewed to avoid their retraumatisation. She enables their presence at interviews, including through arranging safe, secure and dignified transportation, food and water, and accommodation where necessary. The SVRO meets with victims individually to determine their needs and concerns, coordinate support and assistance in a way that upholds their rights, dignity and safety, and confirms that they consent to cooperate in the investigations.

During the short time the advocates have been deployed, they have contributed significantly to the prioritisation of the rights and dignity of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse on the ground through many activities. But they face challenges. These functions are new to the UN, and more effort is required to make them known within and outside the organisation. The fact that their role relates to victims of all UN personnel, and not only those in peace operations, requires greater understanding across the UN system. Although they are full-time staff, the SVROs are human- and financial-resources poor, though they have been provided with some ad hoc support. Both the CAR and the DRC are vast countries, where there are many victims, often in remote areas that are difficult to reach. One advocate working alone is unable to respond to the needs of victims who come forward – especially where there are upticks in allegations, such as in the context of the Ebola response – and to ensure that prevention initiatives incorporate victims’ rights perspectives. For example, until the end of April 2022 surge support was provided to the Senior Victims’ Rights Officer in the CAR, where many allegations surfaced in 2021.

The officers also face the complex task of managing victims’ expectations. They are fearful of perpetrators, concerned about confidentiality, and may face stigma and discrimination from their families and communities. In line with the 2008 UN Comprehensive Strategy on Assistance and Support to Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (A/RES/62/214, Annex), assistance and support should be provided through existing services, programmes and their networks, usually through gender-based violence and child-protection programming. These are chronically underfunded and may be unavailable or inaccessible in remote and insecure areas. Service providers may be unaware of the specific needs of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel. Their capacity to deliver specialised assistance – such as psychological care – may be limited, while legal aid that is essential to assist victims in criminal and civil accountability procedures, including paternity/child maintenance claims, is rarely available. Certainly, victims and children born of sexual exploitation and abuse have benefited from projects financed by the Trust Fund and other sources, such as the WHO Survivor Assistance Fund, but follow-up is required to monitor and assess the quality of the assistance and ensure that the victim is equipped – for example, by upgrading their skills – to take full advantage of these interventions. Nonetheless, the focus on victims’ rights and dignity, especially through the efforts of the Senior Victims’ Rights Officers on the ground, inspired the confidence of many victims and helped them move forward.

Jane Connors has been the Victims’ Rights Advocate (VRA) for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations personnel since 18 September 2017.


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