Issue 81 - Article 15

Applying policies in practice: preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian settings

June 20, 2022

Clara Satke

Madison Jansen

Nina Lacroix

Noor Lakhdar-Toumi

Indigenous women participants of the Safe Space in Catatumbo, Zulia State. Community sensitisation session on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, including standards of conduct of humanitarian personnel and SEA reporting channels.
11 min read

Occurrences of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) represent a failure of the humanitarian system to operate in accordance with its fundamental principle: to do no harm in the delivery of protection and assistance to crises-affected populations. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) remains committed to strengthening the Six Core Principles Relating to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, originally published in 2002 and revised in 2019.

Though the Six Core Principles are the basis for IASC policy, grave failures by humanitarian staff to abide by these principles persist. Thus, the IASC secretariat in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) commissioned the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) International Development Consultancy Project to identify areas where new policies or clarity are needed to prevent SEA. This article is a summary of the project findings, which will additionally be published on the LSE Department of International Development blog, found here.

Six Core Principles Relating to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Note: Adapted from the IASC 6 Core Principles relating to SEA, September 2019

Researchers extensively reviewed IASC members’ public-facing policy guidance related to protection from SEA (PSEA), including standard operating procedures (SOPs) and codes of conduct (CoCs). To glean a more comprehensive understanding of PSEA in practice, we conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with key informants (KIs) having various roles and regional expertise within core IASC member countries. By complementing the desk-based review with interviews, we were able to form a comprehensive understanding of how the Core Principles are interpreted, adopted and applied across participating IASC members, both in policy and in practice.

The findings of this research must be seen in light of some limitations. Due to time constraints and delays, we had limited capacity to select a representative sample of IASC members. Thus, the interview sample lacks sufficient representation, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and NGO networks are particularly underrepresented. Additionally, all but one KI identified as women. A gender-balanced interpretation of PSEA is critical to ensuring a non-biased reflection of the core principles.

How are the Six Core Principles adopted, interpreted and applied across the core IASC members?

IASC members’ roles and actions with regard to PSEA are defined and informed by their policies. All IASC members and standing invitees have incorporated the exact wording of the Core Principles provided by the Secretary-General’s Bulletin (ST/SGB/2003/13) into their SOPs and CoCs. In fact, throughout the years, widespread consensus regarding the importance of PSEA has elicited the adoption of PSEA-specific policies, as well as the reinforcement of the members’ CoCs. For example, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) incorporated a special provision regarding the relationship between professional health workers and beneficiaries, which is not explicitly mentioned in the Core Principles.

In terms of application, wide-ranging initiatives have been taken by IASC members. For instance, following the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in 2020 the World Health Organisation created a dedicated investigation team for SEA and established a benchmark of 220 days for the completion of an investigation. WHO additionally prioritised survivor support through the creation of a multi-level framework that is designed to raise awareness of SEA, and increase accountability. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF)  strengthened its reporting channels and ensured that they were safe and accessible in all programme sites. This initiative allowed it to reach over 61 million women and children in 2021, as opposed to 6.2 million in 2017. It has been found that the more accessible reporting channels are, the more likely beneficiaries are to use them, increasing the number of allegations being made. At the World Food Programme (WFP), collaboration with Translators Without Borders to produce material intended for beneficiary use has been instrumental to the application of the Core Principles, as it ensured the meanings and nuance of the Core Principles are not lost when applied in a non-English-speaking context. The WFP also utilised radio dramas in local languages; visual images on signs and posters; and songs. These mechanisms not only enhance accessibility but also provide creative ways to simplify and contextualise the Core Principles.

The PSEA Network, the PSEA Coordinators and the PSEA Focal Points’ duties are organised around four pillars: management and coordination; engagement with and support of the affected population; prevention; and response. While this system insists on collaboration among staff and across agencies, collaboration takes time, and currently the IASC Terms of Reference in relation to PSEA Focal Points define the position as a role or a ‘hat’, which does not have to be full time. This lack of dedicated full-time capacity negatively impacts the strength of reporting mechanisms, leading to the underreporting and the mishandling of complaints. A lack of capacity has been highlighted as a serious issue in KI interviews (KIIs):

We have a system of PSEA Focal Points […] this isn’t their main job [… ] so often they have at least one if not two other roles within that office, they are hugely overworked, they are not necessarily protection or gender experts […] they may be but often they’re not so the conversation is lost. We have all the tools, there is simply not enough capacity in many of these settings.

In addition to a lack of dedicated capacity, KIIs revealed communication challenges between staff at headquarters and at country-level staff, which resulted in diverse applications of the Core Principles.

Which areas are less well understood or more difficult to implement?

One key area that is less well understood among IASC members is the interaction of the Core Principles with cultural norms and national law. Specifically, confusion occurs around the applicability of the Core Principles when behaviour that is considered culturally and legally acceptable in a particular country is defined as misconduct in the Core Principles.

This tension is illustrated particularly with the implementation of Principle 2, which prohibits sexual activity with beneficiaries under the age of 18 ‘regardless of the age of majority or age of consent locally’. The exception to this – which allows UN staff to be legally married to a person under the age of 18 but above the age of majority or consent in both the UN staff member’s and the spouse’s countries of citizenship – highlights how the Core Principles can be interpreted as subsidiary to local laws and regulations. Local staff may assume they are allowed to engage in sexual activity with beneficiaries in accordance with their rights set out by national law as opposed to the guidance set forth by their IASC member agency. Accordingly, implementation challenges arise in the principle’s enforcement:

In the Middle East […] we’ve had situations and incidents recently where contracted workers working for us in the field are marrying 15 to 17 year old girls, and because within the country it’s not frowned upon it’s very hard to get the national office to take it as seriously as we take it.

Another Core Principle often in conflict with national law is Principle 3. Several KIs highlighted the particular confusion from local IASC member staff around the sanction that this Principle imposes on soliciting a sex worker, especially in contexts where this conduct is considered both legal and normatively acceptable.

When you are talking to enumerators who are going to be away from their families for six months or a year [. . .] they say to me, genuinely, ‘well what do you expect me to do, go without sex for a year?’.

This quote illustrates that there is still a lack of understanding surrounding the precedence of the Core Principles over conduct that is accepted culturally and legally at a national level. Rectifying this misunderstanding requires a more comprehensive discussion around power dynamics in PSEA training sessions.

Since the majority of humanitarian response is now organised through local organisations and individuals who may be from the crisis-affected community themselves, another area less well understood is to whom the term ‘beneficiary’ applies. This confusion may stem from a wider lack of awareness around power asymmetries. This particularly challenges the implementation of Principles 3 and 4, which prohibit bribery for sex, and any sexual relationship between humanitarians and beneficiaries, respectively.

We are still missing the point of the rules-based system [ . . .] we need to explain where power derives from and the way we can be abusing that power and privilege by the very nature of the persons within the humanitarian response.

This quote emphasises that a rules-based approach to PSEA training sessions may not sufficiently address the existence of power dynamics in the humanitarian sector. Training material must communicate effectively that anyone affiliated with the UN or an international NGO has greater power – even if they are from the community themselves.

This issue is already being addressed in some PSEA training sessions through the ‘power walk concept’, an activity used to start a conversation around what power is and where power lies. Roleplays also allow participants to assume different identities to relate this concept to their daily lives before narrowing it down to specific humanitarian contexts.

In sum, PSEA activities and training sessions must be conducted in a way that is less focused on compliance alone, and more focused on stopping abuses of power. This can happen by encouraging people to reflect on their behaviour and the impact that they have, and how they are perceived within the affected communities. As SEA and sex can be context specific, power is a more overarching entry point into these discussions.

Differences in the interpretation of the core principles

The Core Principles are still evolving: the specific terminology used is interpreted in various ways by members. For example, in 2019, the IASC revised the language of Principle 4 from ‘strongly discouraged’ relationships with beneficiaries to ‘prohibited’ relationships, to strengthen the language of the principle and reduce interpretation differences. Yet, in a sentiment echoed across several KIIs, this revision has produced the opposite effect in many respects:

When [Principle 4] was revised it wasn’t in any way simplified, it is just the same level of complicated, but with different words.

Additionally, according to one International Organization for Migration (IOM) representative, the new language of Principle 4 resulted in a lack of clarity regarding which relationships between staff and beneficiaries are prohibited. Mainly, there are different interpretations of whether relationships between local staff and people from their community are forbidden even if they were mutually consensual and pre-existing. In turn, organisations find that employees often fail to disclose pre-existing relationships out of fear of termination, raising further implementation challenges because of the uncertainty regarding the nature of these relationships.

Another difference in the interpretation of the Principles is the application of IASC guidelines outside working hours within societies that legally allow certain behaviours, such as sexual relations with individuals under the age of 18 or sex workers. KIIs claim that employee contracts often influence behaviours at work, but they cite multiple instances pertaining to each of the Principles where staff violate the guidelines outside work hours. Staff often do not understand the purpose of the guidelines, and view following the Principles as a means to maintaining employment. Therefore, beneficiaries are put at risk in environments where staff fail to comprehend that the Principles always apply, and organisations fail to hold their employees accountable to the guidelines.


This research confirms the IASC’s strong commitment to PSEA but also reveals areas of weakness that should be addressed. Areas that are less well understood include the interaction of IASC policies with culture and municipal law, and the power asymmetries that exist within the humanitarian sector. Other areas of confusion include the language within Principle 4 prohibiting relations between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries, and the applicability of IASC guidelines outside work hours. These areas of weakness elicit differences in the interpretation and application of the IASC Six Core Principles, and subsequently may result in the failure to protect those whom the humanitarian system aims to serve. To address these issues, the researchers encourage the IASC to consider several recommendations, such as clarifying how cultural norms and national law conflict with IASC policy; continuing to view the Core Principles as a living document by working to further clarify the concepts; increasing field capacity for PSEA; and using power dynamics as an entry point for PSEA training. Additionally, in light of the unequal representation of those identifying as male in the key-informant sample, the researchers recommend the IASC to follow up with another evaluation of the Six Core Principles with a wider and more representative range of KIs. In addition to adopting the outlined recommendations, the researchers are confident that doing so will further strengthen the IASC’s global mission against SEA.

Clara Satke, Madison Jansen, Nina Lacroix and Noor Lakhdar-Toumi are master’s students at LSE. The researchers conducted this consultancy report towards the completion of their MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies.

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this report are based solely on interviews with key informants, and do not purport to reflect those of the organisation by which they are employed, nor the official position of LSE or UN OCHA.


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