Issue 81 - Article 12

UNHCR’s journey towards a victim-centred approach

June 17, 2022

Diane Goodman

Blanche Tax

Zuhura Mahamed

SEA awareness workshops at the Integrated Assistance Centre in Maicao, Colombia, are an opportunity to learn in a safe space.

Several years ago, in the spring of 2018, a female colleague at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) shared the following experience through an anonymous survey:

I was sexually harassed by a colleague when I was an intern with UNHCR in a remote field location. (…) I did not report because I was brand new, young, scared, and didn’t know anything about reporting. I guess also I was sure that nothing would happen (…). In 2018, an informal employee group, Women and Change, collected testimonies of female UNHCR personnel, describing gendered experiences they had in UNHCR. This quote is part of the collection of anonymous testimonies. With the agreement of those who participated in the survey, the testimonies have been used to advocate for change in UNHCR and for awareness-raising and training purposes. A Men for Change employee group is also actively advocating for change by organising ‘barbershop sessions’ for frank dialogue amongst male UNHCR staff on masculinities, sexual harassment, unconscious bias and related topics. These sessions have now been expanded to include similar dialogues with female staff.

Until not so long ago, the response to sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) and sexual harassment (SH) in the aid sector would likely be described by observers as characterised by the wish to minimise reputational risk, particularly when allegations of sexual misconduct became public. Shifting from an approach that focuses on the organisation to one that revolves around the safety, rights, well-being, and the expressed needs and choices of victims, requires long-term investment and effort The terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ are each used to refer to the person subjected to sexual exploitation and/or abuse, or sexual harassment. In the legal field, the term ‘victim’ is usually used to refer to persons subjected to sexual violence in conflict and/or displacement. Today, ‘survivor’ is more commonly used and is often preferred to ‘victim’ in psychological and social support sectors because it implies resilience. In the United Nations, the term victim is used more often in the context of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment, as in “Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocate (OVRA)” and UNHCR has followed this approach in its policy and guidance related to sexual misconduct. In this article, the term ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’ are used interchangeably. .

Taking inspiration from the #MeToo Movement and the courage of colleagues speaking out about experiences of and concerns regarding sexual misconduct, in early 2018 UNHCR’s leadership fundamentally changed the way that the organisation thought about and tackled these abuses, initiating a series of concrete measures in this respect.

As a first step, the High Commissioner created dedicated capacity by establishing a Senior Coordinator on the Prevention of and Response to SEA and SH Currently the Office of the Senior Coordinator includes seven international staff members and one national staff member. The Victim Care Officer is situated within the Office of the Senior Coordinator. and a multifunctional coordination structure. In May 2018, a multifunctional working group was established to support the Senior Coordinator and to help ensure a coordinated approach to organisational efforts to tackle sexual misconduct. The working group includes representation from a wide range of entities including the Legal Affairs Service, the Ombudsman’s Office, the Ethics Office, the Inspector General’s Office, and those entities covering emergencies, security, external relations, human resources, protection, risk management, programmes and innovation. At the same time, a director-level task force, consisting largely of the same entities and chaired by the Deputy High Commissioner, was also established to provide strategic advice, to endorse critical actions and to ensure the mainstreaming of efforts within each Division or Entity. A vision, strategy and action plan was developed, featuring a victim-centred approach (VCA). In May 2018, the organisation launched its first Strategy and Action Plan to prevent and respond to SEA and SH. This was replaced in 2020 by a new two-year Strategy and Action Plan. For more information on UNHCR’s broader efforts to tackle sexual misconduct please see the Year in Review Publications for 2018, 2019 and 2020, the report on the High Commissioner’s IASC Championship on Protection from SEA and SH, and visit UNHCR’s dedicated webpage.  By bringing efforts to tackle both SEA and SH together – a marked departure from previous practice – the organisation recognised that all forms of sexual misconduct are rooted in gender inequalities and power imbalances and that eradicating them required a change in individual attitudes and behaviour as well as our organisational culture. We realised that changing our working culture is critical to build victims’ trust and help overcome the enormous barriers faced in speaking up and receiving the support and assistance they need.

Safe spaces for dialogue

Creating safe spaces for dialogue and self-reflection are important catalysts for organisational culture change. As a first priority, we looked for new and innovative ways to listen to and interact with colleagues on this sensitive issue. In 2018 and 2019, informal dialogues on addressing sexual misconduct led by the High Commissioner and Deputy High Commissioner, where colleagues could ask questions anonymously, were broadcast live around the world. Victims’ voices, through dramatisations or creative videos (see below) with victim testimonies, were central to these dialogues.

This video was developed by UNHCR as part of the High Commissioner’s Inter-agency Standing Committee (IASC) Championship on Protection from SEA and SH, for a communications package for IASC Principals, but can be used in a variety of settings to encourage dialogue on this issue.

These exchanges were complemented by Reflective Leadership Dialogues, where smaller groups of managers were provided with an opportunity to reflect on their roles as agents of change, how gender and other dynamics affect work environments, and the impact of SH and SEA on victims, their families and their communities.

An internal challenge on how to prevent sexual harassment provided the opportunity for colleagues across the organisation – often in the most remote locations – to engage in conversation and share ideas through our Innovations Platform.

The Victim Care Officer

One of the most impactful and early steps in promoting a VCA was the decision, in September 2018, to establish the position of Victim Care Officer. The Victim Care Officer, a licensed clinical psychologist, provides confidential psychosocial support, guidance and accompaniment to victims of SH. The Victim Care Officer helps to identify and assess risks victims may face and ensure that their needs are met irrespective of the resolution process they choose. While not all risks can be mitigated or eliminated, there are usually some accommodations that can be made that make the process more manageable for victims and – as explained by one colleague who was supported by the Victim Care Officer – reduce the fears associated with the process:

She [the Victim Care Officer] explained the options that were available and we discussed my barriers in depth. With her support I was able to raise a complaint and I felt the steps were less stressful. I was so scared to raise a complaint but after a long discussion and all the clarification she provided I felt more confident and ready to make the complaint.

The accompaniment of SH victims through our processes has provided UNHCR with an overview of how victims experience our internal justice systems. Victims can choose to resolve their experience of sexual harassment through a formal investigation, which can lead to sanctions (usually dismissal), or through a restorative justice facilitated dialogue, where they can be supported to deliver messages to their harassers. This insight has helped us to identify and work to address systemic issues that would have previously been difficult to detect. We receive anonymised feedback from victims through the Victim Care Officer, who also regularly consults with victims in a safe and confidential way to ensure their perspectives are informing UNHCR actions and initiatives.

The role of the Victim Care Officer has evolved over time to include new elements such as support and guidance to managers responding to individual situations of sexual harassment. The role also includes broader organisation- and system-wide initiatives to improve the work environment, training and learning activities, and the integration of the prevention of and response to sexual harassment into corporate guidance, tools and frameworks.

UNHCR’s victim-centred approach policy in response to sexual misconduct

In November 2020, UNHCR took a critical step by issuing its Policy on a Victim-Centred Approach in UNHCR’s response to Sexual Misconduct: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment. This policy, the first of its kind in the United Nations, creates a framework to put victims at the centre of UNHCR’s response to SEA or SH. Building on these elements, UNHCR developed a definition that is both rights- and needs-based, and that emphasises the need for victims to (re)gain a measure of control over actions taken after an experience of sexual misconduct, whether in the context of assistance and support or pursuing justice.

The policy defines a victim-centred approach as:

a way of engaging with victims that prioritises listening to victims, avoids re-traumatisation, and systematically focuses on their safety, rights, well-being, expressed needs and choice, thereby giving back as much control to the victims as feasible, and ensuring the empathetic and sensitive delivery of services and accompaniment in a non-judgmental manner.

It includes high-level principles The principles of a VCA outlined in the policy are: safety and security; assistance and support; non-discrimination; an end-to-end, holistic approach; giving back control; confidentiality and informed consent; ask and listen; keeping victims informed; assistance to and support for child victims; and due process. and lists entities involved in responding, or supporting colleagues based around the world in responding to SEA and SH. It does not detail the operationalisation of the VCA. Instead, it tasks UNHCR’s Senior Coordinator to work with all UNHCR entities involved in responding to or advising on the response to SEA and SH cases to incorporate the VCA into their work.

From policy to practice

In order to operationalise the policy and its principles, a series of workshops were held and guidance developed to support colleagues and entities involved in responding to incidents of sexual misconduct. These workshops sought to consider, for each principle, what actions victims would wish to see and how these actions could be implemented. This process of perspective-taking, alongside dialogue with victims, is another key way in which we have approached the adoption of a VCA. In an effort to implement the end-to-end VCA, the guidance looked at what actions might be taken prior to, during and after any accountability procedure a victim may engage in. While not comprehensive, the guidance provides examples of things to do, not to do, and/or how to do them, as well as other relevant considerations.

This was complemented by a series of dialogues with colleagues in the field aimed at taking stock of how country operations are operationalising the VCA in relation to cases of SEA. It also provided the opportunity to better understand what practices exist and what support is required to enhance the practical application of the policy and ensure that victims of SEA receive holistic support through existing services for survivors of gender-based violence and throughout the complaint-handling process. The dialogues also highlighted a number of challenges in implementing a VCA for victims of SEA, including issues of informed consent in relation to mandatory reporting; concerns about the safety and security of victims; how to ensure that appropriate support and assistance is being provided to victims while maintaining confidentiality; and keeping victims informed throughout the investigatory process.

A key challenge we have faced in becoming victim-centred is the extent to which we are able to revamp our services to be more cognisant of the victim experience. Victims perceive our response as being singular and united, but in fact the institutional design of our organisation has meant that the various support and resolution services on offer are housed in discrete units. In order to make progress, it is important that our organisational response is reconfigured, or that coordination is improved, in order to meet the needs of the individual victim, rather than expecting victims to fit into the logic of our traditional ways of working. This is particularly important because victims cannot separate out the various facets of their experience – including, for example, physical safety concerns, psychological well-being, protection from retaliation, and justice and resolution – simply because organisational matrixes require them to do so.

Implementing a VCA is not only about policies, processes and procedures, but also requires prioritising safety, inclusion, accountability and respect in our organisational culture, and engaging all staff in these efforts. Crucially, it requires confronting real or perceived conflicts of interest, where the organisational interest and the needs and choices of a victim do not, or do not fully, align.

When Tarana Burke – the founder of the #MeToo Movement – was asked about the success of the movement four years after it went global, she said, ‘I think what we’ve made possible is the millions of survivors who feel comfortable coming forward (…) I think we’ve made it possible for people to see healing as a possibility.’ Julianne McShane, October 21, 2021, “It’s been four years since #MeToo went global. Tarana Burke wants to stay ‘laser-focused’ on healing”, While UNHCR still has a long way to go, we are taking steps in that same direction.

Our symbol
We wanted to capture both our journey as an organisation and that of victims/survivors in a single image that could be used to symbolise our work on SEA and SH. To find a suitable image, we went through an internal consultation process, inviting a range of colleagues including victims/survivors to take part in the process.

Our chosen symbol conveys the journey that we are on as an organisation in addressing SEA and SH. We chose a dark colour as the background because the subject matter is heavy, but we illuminated the path and the stars to symbolise hope. The symbol is encapsulated in a circle because we wanted to convey a trusting and safe space for victims/survivors to come forward. The two stars represent the subject areas of SEA and SH, but we also wanted to denote an additional meaning: that the stars represent UNHCR as well as victim/survivors who are on a personal journey following an experience of SEA or SH. We wanted to communicate that they are not alone in their journey, but rather that it is a shared one and that we are in this together.

Diane Goodman is a Senior Coordinator for Prevention and Response to SEA and SH, with UNHCR.

Blanche Tax is a Senior Policy Advisor, currently with UNHCR, New York, and formerly with the Office of the Senior Coordinator on Prevention and Response to SEA and SH.

Zuhura Mahamed is a Victim Care Officer.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.


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