Open Letter From Women in the Aid Sector
On Friday 2nd March, 2018, the letter below was circulated through private emails and messages to women working within the aid sector throughout the world. The letter was drafted by Sarah Martin (@smartindc), Alexia Pepper de Caires (@Je_ne_tweet_pas), Anne Quesney (@anneqy) and Danielle Spencer (@daniellewas). However, it was also informed by many other women who chose to remain anonymous whom we thank for their input.
Just five days after the letter was launched, as of the afternoon of March 7th, the letter has been signed by 1,111 women. 897 women signed and felt it was safe to use their names, 214 women felt they needed to sign on anonymously. Women living and working in 81 countries around the world signed on in support – from the US and UK, to South Sudan, Haiti, Jordan and Bangladesh. The breadth of women working within the aid industry has been truly reflected in the signatories and the content of the letter they have signed should be taken seriously by men and decision makers in humanitarian and development organisations. Thank you to everyone who raised their voices to demand change.
TO: 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.