A number of international organizations have faced high profile allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by staff and contractors on several occasions during emergency response activities.
In a 2018 report on sexual abuse and exploitation in aid, the UK government said sexual abuse is “endemic in aid organisations”. It is clear that sexual violence must be addressed in development work, both within development institutions and in their field operations.
In many developing countries, a culture of impunity for sexual violence exists due to a combination of factors such as weak legal protection, limited welfare and social protection systems, lack of basic services and the dominant patriarchy. This inhibits women’s participation, voice, trust and confidence in reporting cases of sexual violence.
In this scenario, large infrastructure projects funded by development organizations often disrupt and alter the fabric of communities due to an influx of workers – foreign and from other parts of the country – which increases the risks of exploitation, sexual abuse and harassment of women and girls in project communities.
Several studies have shown that development projects with infrastructure components and a large influx of labor can have a negative impact on host communities by creating a situation in which incoming workers have more power than vulnerable members of the community, disrupting established social and economic relationships, causing stress and potentially increasing risks of sexual violence, especially if the community is rural, small or remote.
The negative impact is exacerbated if local institutions are weak and unable to effectively protect women and girls, if there is a high level of poverty in the host community and if gender inequality is widespread in both within households and communities.
These studies further confirm that the risks of major infrastructure works arise not simply from the influx of male workers, but also from the deepening of pre-existing gender inequalities in the dynamics of power and influence in local communities and labor camps. It is therefore imperative to consider all these factors when designing infrastructure development projects.
Development operations must guard against potential risks of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. How can this be done?
Development organizations should continue to focus on the people their projects are meant to support, taking into account the specific needs and circumstances of women and girls. They should also be aware of issues and gaps related to sensitivity, level of trust and risks related to confidentiality, potential re-victimization and retaliation for gender-based and sexual violence.
It is essentially about empowering women – both economically and socially – to tackle the underlying causes of this complex problem. Developing countries need support in establishing systems whereby the voices and concerns of those affected by sexual violence in development projects are heard, and measures to support the recovery of survivors are in place .
This should be considered early in project development and incorporated into project design as “do no harm” and “do good” measures.
Development operations are designed to bring positive economic changes to people and communities, but they also bring about social changes, some of which can amplify the risks of gender-based and sexual violence. Recognizing how this violence occurs and the key factors that increase the risk of such violence is the first step to preventing, mitigating and developing effective response mechanisms.
It is also extremely important to change the perceptions and attitudes of people who interact with victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. Victims’ accounts are often questioned, resulting in survivors’ reluctance to come forward about such incidents. Significant change is needed to ensure that any report of sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment is treated as plausible until proven otherwise.
Grievance mechanisms and project response systems should be specifically tailored to women and girls, and based on survivor-centered and survivor-informed principles. This means that the needs, rights and safety of survivors must be the cornerstones of prevention, mitigation and response.
Privacy and confidentiality, survivor agency, dignity, respect and non-discrimination are key principles of a “survivor-centred approach”. We must create an enabling environment in which the interests of survivors are respected and prioritized, and through which every survivor is treated with dignity and respect. This is crucial for building trust in reporting and response systems, but more importantly for promoting survivors’ recovery and building their capacity to make informed decisions about their lives for themselves.
Addressing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in development projects cannot be done without the shared responsibility and joint efforts of development organizations, government agencies, project contractors, non-governmental organizations and service providers.
Supporting survivors should be a top priority, and we need to improve systems and build capacity among contractors and government agencies, as well as service providers, to ensure a trusted, survivor-centered environment for survivor support. reporting and access to services.
The result of these collective efforts will have multiple positive social and economic benefits. Development organizations and government agencies will be protected against reputational risks, members of project host communities will be safer, and women and girls will be more empowered.
Samantha Hung is Head of the Gender Thematic Group at the Asian Development Bank (AfDB).
Malika Shagazatova works as a Social Development Specialist in the AfDB’s Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department.