Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Aid Work
The internet is abuzz this week with the breaking news about revelations that Oxfam workers paid for sex with women and children in Haiti in 2011, while deployed to the country in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, from which the country is still recovering.
The 2010 earthquake killed 200,000 Haitians and caused more than 1.5 million people to become homeless, as well as devastated the national economy. For years, people have lived in tent cities, supported by numerous international aid organizations, including various UN agencies.
As numerous studies have now pointed out, women are made especially vulnerable in the wake of crises, such as that which rocked Haiti in 2010. Because of pre-existing social, political, and economic inequalities, which mean women pre-crisis have limited material means to support themselves or families independently combined with a high burden of care responsibilities, both the effects and costs of natural disasters and other acute crises often gravely magnify women’s subordination.
It is precisely because of Haiti’s already starkly stratified society, wherein gender intersects with class-based and racial inequalities, that not long after the quake, reports began to emerge of systematic sexual exploitation and abuse occurring in the country. One of the early scandals involved reports of troops belonging to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti – MINUSTAH – gang raping (or, in the industry lingo, perpetrating ‘collective rape’ against) an 18-year-old Haitian man, which was caught on video. However, long before this incident, reports were indicating an alarming extent of rape and sexual violence against women and children as young as 2 in the tent cities. Further reports allege sexual exploitation of women and children in ‘exchange’ for food, money, or other consumables. The Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development in Haiti noted how common the “sex-for-food” exchange was in camps in Haiti, saying:
“In particular, young girls have to negotiate sexually in order to get shelter from the rains and access to food aid.”
But even before the earthquake, UN aid workers were implicated in systematic sexual abuse of female children (resulting in the expulsion of over 100 Sri Lankan troops from Haiti in 2007), and of ‘rampaging’ in Port-au-Prince, firing 22,000 rounds of ammunition, killing 23 people. Thus, these new revelations must be placed in a longer history of (neo)colonial violence and exploitation that has characterized the international community’s engagement with Haiti for over a decade.
80 percent of Haitians live in poverty. Before the earthquake, the country was one of the lowest-ranked in development indicators by the UNDP (149th out of 182), a situation only exacerbated by the adoption of neoliberal economic policies as a condition of receiving US and international assistance for decades. These policies, combined with foreign aid policies, have “for decades undermined the capacity of the Haitian state to meet the needs of its citizens” (Horton 2012: 299). Thus, the social support that should have been available to vulnerable populations has long been absent, or problematically tied to funding priorities of external agents. These conditions have made women affected by the earthquake even more dependent on international agencies for what life-sustaining provisions they may offer. Two years after the earthquake, it was largely poor women who remained as the primary residents of official and unofficial tent camps.
A situation, obviously, rife for exploitation.
According to researchers, post-earthquake societal and camp conditions have facilitated sexual exploitation of women and girls through various means. In some camps, male-dominated committees are responsible for the control and distribution of aid, and women have reported being forced to negotiate sex in order to obtain access to vital supplies. Women community leaders have repeatedly linked women’s economic situation post-earthquake with a rise in the number of women and girls engaging in ‘sex work.’
But to claim that these girls and women are exercising agency in exchanging sex for food, or money, or protection may be misguided. Before the earthquake, a 2005 study by the IOM found that, while some cited poverty and lack of opportunity as the reason they engaged in ‘sex work,’ others were trafficked against their will.
Of course, with the most recent revelations brought forward regarding Oxfam, accusations are being levelled against the organization’s toxic and masculinist environment and lack of moral leadership. The UK International Development Secretary is threatening to cut aid funding in the wake of the scandal.
What is not being talked about is both the link between peacekeeper sexual exploitation and abuse and aid worker sexual exploitation and abuse, and the systemic structural conditions that make exploiting vulnerable women around the globe both thinkable and actionable for renegade aid cowboys. While one quite decent analysis rightfully points to the economic disparity between aid-recipient states and deployed rich, Western humanitarian workers as an obvious source of the problem, nowhere does the author or other commentators note what gender is doing in this equation.
In a global and historical perspective, we know that rampant sex-based economies that now characterize countries like Thailand and the Philippines were born of the sexual exploitation and abuse of women by foreign (US) militaries. Prostitution industries have more or less formally been established around military bases throughout the 20th century, and laid the groundwork for prostitution becoming a considerable market sector for host countries. As Jeffreys puts it:
“military prostitution caused the industrialization of prostitution in a country” and “local women and girls became the raw materials of the global sex industry, not only prostituted within local and sex tourism industries at home but trafficked into prostitution worldwide.”
Underpinning this system is the widespread expectation that rich(er), (more) powerful, (white) men are entitled to extract sex from women and girls over whom they can exercise control. That patriarchal systems not only enable the expectation of women’s sexual availability and men’s entitlement to it, but should also be understood as intimately tied to male dominance as a systemic feature of society. To quote MacKinnon, the exceptionality of these acts as especially exploitative overlooks the extent to which “men do in war what they do in peace.”
Consider these revelations of abuse in the context of a recent study by Promundo which found that 26% of British and American males agree that “A ‘real man’ should have as many sexual partners as he can,” while 40% believed in men’s economic primacy over women. Furthermore, men who expressed such sentiments were six times more likely to have reported sexually harassing a woman or a girl.
Given that the industry as a whole is fraught with power relations inscribed in patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalist class relations, I’m happy to see that this scandal has raised questions about the durability of the aid industry as a means for addressing post-conflict and post-crisis societal issues. But to represent sexual exploitation and abuse as an isolated (to an organization, geographical region, or industry) phenomenon overlooks how the abusive relationship engendered in this scandal is made possible (probable!) by wider power relations in which the various agents of this story sit.
Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.