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Reports indicate widespread sexual harassment, bullying at UN

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Last week, the United Nations released a survey indicating that as many as a third of its employees experienced sexual harassment in the past two years. In December, UNAIDS reported that its leadership had failed to address pervasive claims of sexual harassment and bullying. And last year, Oxfam staffers were accused of soliciting sex in post-earthquake Haiti.

The U.N., nongovernmental organizations, and international charities -- the "aid industry" -- may be especially prone to such issues, according to a recent story by NPR. Both legal and practical issues may contribute to the problem.

UN staff survey finds extensive sexual, LGBTQ harassment

The U.N. and the consulting group Deloitte conducted the online survey of U.N. staff. Over 30,000 people responded. According to the survey, the most common types of sexual harassment reported were:

  • Offensive sexual jokes
  • Offensive remarks about personal appearance or sexual activities
  • Unwelcome attempts to make conversations about sex

A surprisingly high percentage of employees were affected, when employment type was considered:

  • Junior professional officers - 49 percent
  • U.N. volunteers - 39 percent
  • U.N. consultants - 39.7 percent

In addition, the LGBTQ community reported high rates of harassment. Fifty-three percent of individuals who identified as lesbians reported harassment, along with 48 percent of participants who identified as gay and 48 percent who identified as queer.

The survey likely indicates people's perception that they have experienced sexually harassing behavior, which may or may not have risen to the level of sexual harassment as defined by the law. Under federal law, the harassment must have been severe or pervasive in order to be actionable.

Practical and legal factors affecting sexual harassment in the aid industry

Workplace sexual harassment at the U.N., specifically, can be harder to address because U.N. staffers are immune from certain U.S. and even international laws. Victims may not be able to use Title VII, for example, to sue the perpetrator for damages -- but the U.N. can still take disciplinary action.

Another reason sexual misconduct may be relatively prevalent in the aid industry is that much of the work is done in remote areas and in places where there are different laws and cultural norms around sexual behavior. This allows perpetrators to "get away with it without much scrutiny," commented one senior humanitarian professional interviewed by NPR.

Moreover, aid workers may perpetrate sexual misconduct against the people they are purportedly helping. When people are in crisis, it can be easy for predators to take advantage.

Aid agencies are scrambling to address the problem, ousting leaders and creating policies and hotlines. What is truly needed, perhaps, is "a rebuilding of trust among the aid community," according to Megan Nobert, the founder of a project that researched these problems between 2015 and 2017.

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