Issue 81 - Article 9

Lessons from Mozambique and Venezuela on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse

June 17, 2022

Irene Coello

Maria Alvarez

Irene Coello at a womens' focus group at-Nicavaco relocation site in Northern Mozambique.
13 min read

Irene, Humanitarian Affairs Officer at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Venezuela, arrived in Mozambique on 3 December 2021. Her mission: to support the Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Network A PSEA network is a space for inter-agency coordination and strategic decision-making on how to address and deliver on commitments on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, as part of the United Nations’ work. It is comprised of UN agencies, funds and programmes, and very often also includes international and national non-governmental organisations (NGO)s in Cabo Delgado for three months as subnational Inter-Agency Coordinator. A few weeks later, Maria reached Caracas in the capacity of PSEA Network Coordinator. Irene has now returned to her regular assignment as the PSEA and gender focal point for OCHA in Venezuela and Maria used to work as PSEA National Coordinator in Mozambique in 2019–2020. After dozens of calls and emails, information, advice and support exchanges, they finally met in person in March 2022, eager to get each other’s perspectives on PSEA in Mozambique and how to apply these experiences to their activities in Venezuela, where they now both work.

Operating in complex and sensitive contexts

There are as many approaches to addressing sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) as there are operational contexts. Maria’s and Irene’s experiences of Mozambique and Venezuela confirm the need for context-appropriate and innovative approaches to prevent and address sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). PSEA networks and practitioners face different issues in every country and adapt their work to the operational context. For instance, PSEA operations in camps apply different approaches to community sensitisation and to the prevention of and response to SEA. Contextual factors such as multi-language use, the presence and treatment of ethnic minorities, and social norms related to sexual conduct all end up defining and nuancing SEA prevention and response strategies. While the PSEA community has developed guidance and tools to support the design and implementation of community-based activities in accordance with the characteristics, needs and preferences of the different population groups, we still have a long way to go in ensuring that our PSEA-related policies are comprehensive.

As just one example of this, it is widely recognised that a large proportion of SEA allegations globally do not concern staff directly hired by United Nations (UN) agencies or their partners. On the contrary, they often involve personnel linked to local authorities – non-traditional humanitarian and development actors such as teachers, health workers, local leaders or community volunteers. These are the types of actors that are regularly found at the frontline of on-the-ground operations across sectors and geographical regions. In most cases, UN and international non-governmental organisations’ (INGO) frameworks do not enable the effective management and enforcement of corrective or disciplinary action against such personnel.

Advancing the PSEA agenda necessitates that our policies and processes apply to sexual exploitation and abuse committed by all categories of personnel involved in humanitarian and development activities regardless of contractual ties. A very common example of this barrier to PSEA is the management of cases in which the alleged perpetrator is a community volunteer or member of the local authorities. Who has the authority to investigate? How do we refer SEA cases to national authorities, ensuring that a victim-centred approach is followed? Who has the competence and the authority to determine and enforce disciplinary actions? These are issues that PSEA practitioners in the field face on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the PSEA policies and frameworks do not provide a consistent answer.

A novel workaround had already been established in Mozambique before Maria arrived. When the humanitarian operation was concentrated in Sofala in response to Cyclone Idai, the majority of allegations reported were against community leaders. Under the leadership of the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) at the time, the Network had an arrangement whereby it would compile cases and send them to the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office via the Humanitarian/Resident Coordinator (HC/RC). The Provincial Prosecutor’s Office could then proceed with the investigation and disciplinary measures. While Maria was coordinating the national network, conversations were started with the National Prosecutor’s Office with the objective of developing a national-level agreement that would standardise the referral approach across the country. That piece of work is currently led by the PSEA National Coordinator.

How to implement PSEA on the ground – going beyond the national level

In Mozambique, there is one national and three subnational PSEA networks. Irene led the Cabo Delgado network, one of the most active ones, for almost three months. This high level of activity meant that the national network’s daily workload often came from the Cabo Delgado network. As conflict continues to unfold in Northern Mozambique, provoking a growing humanitarian impact and response, the main SEA risks in Mozambique – including sexual exploitation being committed by community leaders linked to beneficiary registration and access to assistance – have been identified in Cabo Delgado. More than 90% of the cases registered in 2021 were reported in Cabo Delgado, most of which purportedly involved leaders of the communities.

Nonetheless, individual organisations within the network do not have staff who can focus solely on PSEA. The growing number of field staff need in-depth PSEA training before going out to work with communities and affected populations, as untrained staff present a risk per se. For this, the support of the national PSEA network in Mozambique is key, as it focuses on developing the training packages and materials for subnational actors working in the field. The National Network is also pivotal in creating a framework of understanding with national authorities by engaging in high-level discussions and agreements, from which the subnational network benefits.

Venezuela does not have subnational networks, so keeping PSEA afloat at this level is more challenging. Discussions regarding PSEA are scarce at the field level: there is a thin presence on the ground, fewer human resources and access problems. The underreporting of PSEA incidents means that a case for greater resources and dedicated coordination structures at the field level cannot easily be made; it is seen as an isolated issue, or one of lesser priority. In lieu of such networks, therefore, strong advocates within organisations act as PSEA focal points. Yet there is no guarantee this is enough. As in Mozambique, there is a lack of dedicated capacity to fulfil PSEA obligations.

Whether national or subnational, PSEA networks allow their members – and the wider humanitarian community – to build on one another’s initiatives and capacities, mapping common risks, jointly identifying mitigation strategies and delivering on agreed priorities, putting the needs of victims and survivors in the centre of our response.

PSEA as a collective responsibility – who does what?

PSEA is supposedly a collective responsibility – a top priority for the UN and the wider humanitarian community. Nonetheless, there is a big gap between what needs to be done, what we would like to do as PSEA advocates, and what we can actually do. We need to ‘walk the talk’, as Irene often says.

International rosters managed by agencies or NGOs are the main source of PSEA coordinators; they are often couched in complex bureaucratic processes. When these rosters are not a viable and agile option, organisations need to think outside the box and look for other alternatives. There are often officials who are not fully dedicated to PSEA as part of their daily job, but are actually quite able to provide support to an operation for a defined period. This was the particular case of Irene, as she went on an OCHA surge mission for almost 12 weeks to Cabo Delgado, to work as the Inter-Agency PSEA Coordinator for Northern Mozambique; her actual position in Venezuela is Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator, heading the Caracas field hub. ‘There is internal capacity for sure; it’s a matter of enquiring and also opening up opportunities, even for national staff such as myself,’ says Irene.

On the matter of perception of affiliation, PSEA coordinators are often hosted by UN agencies, having in fact an inter-agency role. In practice, it is difficult to promote understanding of this; colleagues require constant reminders in meetings and other spaces. As a collective responsibility, it is important to put perception of affiliation or even actual affiliation aside, for a coordinator to be able to perform their duties to the best of their ability. This could also help navigate complex inter-agency dynamics.

It is globally recognised that inter-agency PSEA capacity is a must. However, human resources are not the only capacity challenge. Funding is one of the main constraints; humanitarian operations need timely funding for national and – as in the case of Mozambique – subnational coordinators. In order to bring forward the inter-agency PSEA agenda, funding for inter-agency activities and projects is required yet hardly ever secured. Mozambique is a success story in this regard, according to Maria. With strong support from the HC even before the arrival of a full-time PSEA coordinator, the PSEA inter-agency activities were budgeted alongside the coordination position and funding was secured from the onset of the operation for community sensitisation, reporting channels and other key activities. As an example of strong inter-agency cooperation, the PSEA concept note collectively created for the Mozambique context informed one component of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) own project, ensuring that interagency PSEA received funding as part of it. This led to the creation of Maria’s PSEA Coordinator role.

As National PSEA Coordinator, Maria has been hosted by two different agencies: the WFP in Mozambique and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Venezuela. As per her experience, the leading role played by the HC/RC is a key factor in ensuring that her position is seen as an inter-agency one. Such leadership is vital to opening doors for PSEA to be effectively integrated in all strategic and technical processes. By reporting directly to the HC/RC in both Mozambique and Venezuela, Maria has been able to support them in the fulfilment of their responsibilities and accountabilities on PSEA. Such access to the most senior UN officials in-country is rooted in the PSEA Coordinator terms of reference, and grants coordinators access to key decision-making spaces (e.g., Humanitarian Country Teams or UN Country Teams).

Building on Mozambique’s and other countries’ experience, in Venezuela the Network has designed and submitted a PSEA inter-agency project to the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2022. This includes key areas that have been identified by the Network as priorities. This brings us back to funding – mobilising resources is among the Network’s foremost goals, if it is to focus on these priority areas.

PSEA and the triple nexus

If PSEA is to remain a humanitarian priority, it is critical to ensure PSEA adaptation in the humanitarian–peace-building–development nexus agenda. While humanitarian and development actors have the responsibility of maintaining PSEA core standards in all operations, we believe there is still work to be done in terms of:

  • Integrating PSEA not only in Humanitarian Response Plans, but also in Development Frameworks agreed between the UN system and national authorities.
  • Improving the understanding of PSEA by governmental implementing partners, including the aforementioned issue of SEA and non-affiliated personnel.
  • Guaranteeing safe access to government-managed assistance services, within the principles of the victim-centred approach, particularly when cases purportedly concern non-traditional humanitarian or development actors, such as community leaders. The Venezuelan Humanitarian Response Plan includes the establishment of a fund to remove barriers to gender-based violence (GBV) and child protection (CP) services for SEA victims. Complementary activities include the integration of PSE in the case management Standard Operating Procedures for GBV and CP, and the provision of PSE training to GBV and CP service providers and case managers.
  • Building the capacity of government institutions to embed PSEA approaches and mechanisms within their disciplinary, human resources and service delivery frameworks. For example, in Venezuela we are starting to collaborate with education stakeholders to integrate SEA standards in the existing code of conduct and schools’ governance frameworks, in order to ensure teachers’ awareness of SEA principles and that child-friendly reporting mechanisms are built into existing structures to ensure sustainability.

Overall, the nexus agenda is about strengthening local capacities and creating conditions for future development and peace. In the case of Venezuela and PSEA, this entails a need to address bigger and more transcendental issues, such as gender inequality and how it manifests through the feminisation of poverty; the oversexualisation of Venezuelan women and girls; and the increasing levels of gender-based violence, in the midst of rampant impunity. These issues are intertwined, and the nexus agenda cannot be achieved without tackling them.


After endless animated conversations about successes, challenges and opportunities to improve, coming from both contexts, we agree on the following three priorities for the PSEA strategy in Venezuela in the upcoming year.

First, in terms of presence and representation, we must recognise that we lack the resources and capacity in-country to establish subnational networks. Therefore, it is key to focus our efforts in stretching the presence of the existing national network across the country. For this purpose, we will roll out a two-fold approach. On the one hand, we must strengthen the participation in the national network of organisations that are only present at the subnational level. On the other hand, we must strengthen PSEA in subnational coordination bodies by further engaging subnational inter-agency focal points, which will also allow us to bring the field priorities and nuances to the national agenda. In parallel, we both emphasise the need to continue the efforts to bring meaningful participation of NGOs to the PSEA inter-agency work, as they are the ones implementing on the ground, with direct and constant contact with the communities.

Another key priority is to initiate a dialogue with government institutions and local authorities, prioritising those who are involved in humanitarian and development activities, in particular education, protection, health and disaster risk management. Our main challenge in this regard is to ensure that thorough risk analysis and mitigation plans are in place prior to their involvement, particularly in relation to the referral of potential allegations concerning them.

Finally, it is imperative that we further strengthen our efforts on community engagement, which is crucial to address our main concern at this stage: SEA underreporting. We need to focus on making sure that communities understand PSEA principles and that our reporting mechanisms are informed by the needs and preferences of those groups that are most at risk of SEA. We must guarantee not only safe access to but also community trust in our systems, in order to overcome victims’ fear of retaliation.

Maria and Irene both acknowledge the rare but wonderful opportunity to cross paths and work together, sharing an expanded understanding of both the Mozambican and the Venezuelan contexts and proactively building on this to continue to work together to strengthen PSEA in Venezuela.

Irene Coello is a Venezuelan gender/human rights professional, with over 15 years of experience in development and humanitarian affairs. She works as Humanitarian Affairs Officer at OCHA.

Maria Alvarez is the Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Coordinator in Venezuela.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the authors and do not represent the positions of their organisations.


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