Over the past few months, we’ve been listening. Deeply, actively listening. To the multitude of voices that have been silenced for far, far too long.
This International Women’s Day began with a headline from the Guardian that screamed: ‘You need to hear us’: over 1,000 female aid workers urge reform in open letter. Alexia Pepper de Caires, one of the organizers of the letter alongside Sarah Martin, Danielle Spencer and Anne Quesney, sums up their motivation succinctly: “The whole point of the letter is, ‘You need to hear us, because we’re the ones who are telling you what’s happening.'” The letter calls for “fundamental reforms to shift the patriarchal bias in aid” and is signed by over a thousand women in 81 countries.
An easy ask? No. But if anyone is up for the task, these 1,000+ women spread around the globe are. I am. If gun rights activism in the US is anything to judge by, the next generation of aid workers surely is. The women you say hello to in the hallway, or grab drinks with after work, or report to, or that report to you, the women with whom you exchange all-knowing glances at the coordination meetings, definitely are.
There is solidarity here. And a growing space in which people feel empowered to speak with louder and louder voices about practices that have, up to now, been considered “part of what you signed up for.” These are the words of a friend’s boss when employees asked, three times, about staff well-being during a global all-staff meeting.
My friend’s boss is wrong. He doesn’t yet realize that we have already been carried farther down along the shore than we realized. Not only by our own small strokes in the big blue sea, but also by the undercurrent of others’ actions and testimonies, which grow stronger and wider as they join with other currents. A sea change is underway.
Yes, it’s tempting to say “told you so!” Technically, we just said it. But this sea change is far from over and we cannot become complacent, or take it for granted. As the organizers of the letter assure those who ran out of time to sign, or are only seeing it now: “there are other ways to make yourself heard.” They urge supporters to:
(1) tweet about the letter;
(2) print the letter out and put it on the wall of your office for others to sign;
(3) share it digitally with your colleagues;
(4) use it as a conversation starter in your office; and
(5) hold your organisation accountable to the principles of the letter.
And end with the words, “We can never go back to business as usual.”
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What follows is the full text of the open letter. To see it alongside the list of over 1,000 signatories, and suggested actions, visit http://www.sexualexploitationreport.org. The organizers ask that you tweet your thoughts using #AidOpenLetter, #AidToo, and #ReformAid.
For coverage in Spanish, see: La “cultura del silencio” y los escándalos sexuales. #ViolenciaMachista
Send links to coverage in other languages & we’ll post them here, or contact the organizers if you’re interested in translating it into your language.
Senior Managers, CEOs and Board Members of Humanitarian and Development Organisations, Violence Against Women and Girls is endemic across all societies. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have exposed the level of sexual harassment experienced by women in the film industry, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the work of women acting in solidarity with their sisters around the world, in recent weeks it has become increasingly apparent that the international aid sector has its own shortcomings. We, the undersigned, demand that the aid sector is reformed and the patriarchal norms which dominate it are rooted out.
We stand together to speak out about the violence and abuse perpetrated against women and girls by men who work within charities. We stand together because our voices are stronger in unison and have often not been heard when we have stood alone. We acknowledge that not all women have the same amount of power – race, class, sexual orientation, economic realities and other forms of discrimination and oppression all play a part in women’s ability to to be heard. Patriarchy impacts women and girls from the global South and women of colour hardest. We acknowledge that these women are most affected and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by aid workers, yet are also the least likely to be heard and least likely to be able to sign on to support this letter.
It is the behaviour of these men, not our complaint of their behaviour, which damages the sector’s reputation and public trust. The women who are speaking out now hope to make international aid a better place for the women who work within it, and for those whose rights we campaign and advocate for. We speak out now in the hopes that in future, the blame for the abuse or for “not doing enough” to stop the abuse will no longer fall on women. The twisted logic of blaming women and girls for the violence and abuse they experience has to end and it is everyone’s responsibility to end it – within the aid sector and beyond.
We are gravely concerned that the culture of silence, intimidation and abuse will continue as soon as the media spotlight on this issue begins to dim. Trust in our sector can only be restored when we ask and answer the difficult questions and openly challenge those who exploit and hide behind the good work of many. We encourage everyone who has seen issues which are contrary to the principles of equality and justice, which are the bedrock of our work, to step forward and speak out and we ask aid agencies to support them.
We ask for 3 fundamental reforms to shift the patriarchal bias in aid:
1. Trust women: organisations need to take action as soon as women report sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse; allegations must be treated with priority and urgency in their investigation; the subject of a complaint of this nature must be immediately suspended or removed from their position of power and reach of vulnerable women and girls.
2. Listen: foster a culture where whistleblowing is welcome and safe – the way to win back trust of donors, the public and the communities we work with is to be honest about abuses of power and learn from disclosures. Sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse should no longer have to be discussed in hushed tones in our offices.
3. Deeds not words: We need effective leadership, commitment to action and access to resources. It is not enough to develop new policies which are never implemented or funded – with the right tools we can end impunity at all levels in the sector.
 Although this letter focuses on women and girls as the survivors of male perpetrated sexual violence, we acknowledge that boys and men experience sexual harassment and exploitation too. We further acknowledge that there are women perpetrators and certainly women who are complicit. However, the scale of the abuse faced by women and girls is overwhelming and based on global gender inequality. Emphasis does not mean exclusion, and although male survivors experience this issue less than women and girls and for different reasons, we stand in solidarity with male survivors as well.