During the last decade, the world has seen its fair share of devastating disasters, both natural and man-made. Despite the negative impact of humanitarian disasters on all civilians involved, women, adolescent girls, and children hold a special place of vulnerability and regularly, without effort, find themselves in a position of extreme defenselessness and become exposed to abuse from both their country-men and those there to protect them. Long after a disaster hits a certain area, the region remains devastated and people lose all sense of civility and compassion. The suffering of the affected population persists and is in some cases exacerbated by those whose expressed purpose is to assist the people in need. Women in conflict and post-disaster regions lack the protection of a family, stable society and justice and often become commodities that anyone who has access to them can exploit for their own gratification.
One of the core standards of the Sphere Project refers to the performance of aid workers, and a specific key action under that standard is that the organization needs to “establish codes of personal conduct for aid workers that protect disaster-affected people from sexual abuse, corruption, exploitation and other violations of people’s human rights”. Respect for the affected population is vital to the success of the program targeting the amelioration of the conditions in which the affected individuals find themselves after a disaster or conflict. While many humanitarian actors live up to their name and contribute to the establishment of safe environments and the protection of vulnerable populations, a review initiated by the Executive Committees on Humanitarian Affairs and Peace and Security (ECHA/ECPS) Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) and completed in 2010 by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) reveals that there are many others who have instead been complicit in the abuse of those they are there to protect. Furthermore, the report found that even in cases in which policies were established, the implementation, adherence to, and acceptance of these policies was found to have been minimal.
This is, in my opinion, a serious issue that demands a resolution if the field of humanitarian assistance is to establish credibility. The work of humanitarian actors deserves the attention of both the agencies that employ them and the general public that is interested in ensuring that their donations or tax money are not used for the further exploitation of those who have lost so much. Even in the second decade of the 21st century, disasters and conflicts continue to plague many around the world. As such, it is clear that humanitarian operations are here to stay as a vital part of modern relief efforts. Therefore, actions need to be taken to evaluate operations and demand changes where necessary. In order to properly and successfully address the issue of sexual abuse by humanitarian actors, organizations engaged in humanitarian work must be required to complete an assessment of their programs with a specific focus on the issue at hand and mandated to implement recommendations for the eradication of the problem.