News coverage of aid agencies and sexual exploitation has exploded over the last few months following revelations of the Oxfam sex crimes scandal in Haiti.
As many of us remember, Haiti was hit by a major earthquake in 2010, killing more than 200,000 people, injuring over 300,000 people, and leaving 1.5 million more homeless. Unfortunately, victims in disaster zones must worry about more than just hunger, disease, and shelter; they must also watch out for sexual predators.
Disaster zones provide power to sexual predators with control over access to food, water, supplies, and work. According to a 2008 report from Save The Children, “children as young as six are trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, [and] soap. . .” They term this behavior “survival sex.” At the National Center on Sexual Exploitation we call it sexual exploitation.
In Haiti, a group of aid workers near Port-au-Prince, including Oxfam’s country director for Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, reportedly invited “young prostitutes” to sex parties at their Oxfam-funded housing. Several allegations indicate that some of the “prostitutes” may have been 14 to 16 years old, however this has not yet been proven.
A source claiming to have seen footage from a resident’s phone says, “The group lived in a guesthouse rented by Oxfam . . . they called it ‘the whorehouse’ . . . They were throwing big parties with prostitutes. These girls were wearing Oxfam T-shirts, running around half-naked, it was like a full-on Caligula orgy. It was unbelievable.”
Sources also claim that the male aid workers coerced their hired drivers, threatening to not extend their work contracts unless the drivers brought them girls.
Oxfam claims they did not try to cover up anything but did their best to deal with the situation at the time. In 2011 seven men, including van Hauwermeiren, either resigned or were fired as a result of Oxfam investigations into allegations of prostitute use, bullying, and possession of illegal and pornographic material on work computers. However, Oxfam failed to warn other agencies in the humanitarian aid sector of these men’s sexual misconduct, and many of them went on to work in other aid organizations.
The Haitian government has banned Oxfam from work in the country, and is currently conducting its own investigation into Oxfam aid workers that have entered their country since the 2010 earthquake to determine the extent of misconduct. They are also considering expanding the investigation to include other aid organizations operating in the country since the disaster.
Many fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Reports of other abuses by aid workers have been. Apparently, similar misconduct years previously by Oxfam GB aid workers, led by van Hauwermeiren, has been uncovered in Chad as well.
In Syria, women have been coerced into giving male aid workers sexual favors in exchange for the food and supplies sent by the charity agencies. An International Rescue Commission (IRC) investigation in 2015 reported that “40% [of the women and girls they interviewed in Syria] had experienced sexual violence while trying to access aid.” And since it became common knowledge that women were often forced to sell their bodies in exchange for humanitarian relief, some women began refusing to go to the agencies to get aid for fear that their neighbors would suspect they had sold themselves to obtain it.
Sexual predators have also infiltrated the UN. In 2016, there were more than 100 reports of sexual exploitation by UN staff, 52 of which came from a mission in the Central African Republic. Half of those involved at least one child.
After hearing about incidents of sexual misconduct by aid workers, the International Committee of the Red Cross began an internal review. They reported 21 staff members have either been let go or resigned due to sexual misconduct within the last three years. Plan International has revealed 6 confirmed cases sexual exploitation of minors and 9 incidents of sexual misconduct against adults, all perpetrated by staff or associates.
Now let me be clear: this desperate act for survival is not sex—it is rape. It is not trade or bartering—it is sexual exploitation.
In the case of children, it’s easy to argue exploitation. However, even in the case of adult women, this so-called “prostitution” is sexual exploitation. In post-disaster regions, people often have no access to food, clean water, money, or shelter. They are forced to seek for any way to survive. For anyone to withhold those things until sexual favors have been given is coercive and exploitative.
Some people try to argue that these women are free to make this choice. But let me ask you this. If someone walks up to you and your child, points a gun at your child’s head, and says “give me your wallet or your child dies”, do you really have any choice? I mean, sure, you could say “no” and your child would die. Or you could give them the wallet with all your money, IDs, etc. and save your child. Afterwards, no one will come after you and say, “It’s your fault that person has your wallet now. You chose to give it to them.”
So how—when women with starving, sick, sometimes dying children give in to the demands of these “aid workers” in order for them and their children to survive—how can pro-pimp activists come back and say things like: “they chose this,” “they want this,” “the aid workers were doing them a favor by paying them and/or giving them food and water?”
Everything about it is exploitative.
Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, says she was “shocked” by the actions of the Oxfam aid workers, yet also claims that it is “separate from the issue of the legal status of sex work.” Amnesty’s policy states, “Decisions to sell sex can be influenced by situations of poverty . . . Such situations do not necessarily . . . negate a person’s consent.”
But how are these situations any different? Prostitution preys on the most vulnerable—those with the least choices. This video, “Is Prostitution A Choice?” clearly outlines the reality that prostitution as a whole is exploitative.
The women who get coerced into and stuck in prostitution are exposed to countless harms. By commercializing sex, society is saying that sexual assault and violence against women is okay—as long as you pay for it. It says that degrading women and making their bodies public sexual property is okay—as long as money is exchanged. It says exposing them to repeated trauma and putting their physical and mental health at risk are okay, because it is their “job.”
But at NCOSE we know sexual exploitation is no one’s job. It’s past time for the aid sector to recognize this fact and stand against those who sexually exploit the world’s poor and vulnerable.
To learn more about the harms of prostitution visit NCOSE’s: Bright Light on the Red Light.
Additionally, the Aid sector needs to develop significantly better policies to safeguard children in emergency situations. To learn more about different ideas on how to do that visit: keepingchildrensafe.org.uk