Australian aid organisations have apologised to victims of sexual abuse and harassment after an independent review sustained 31 allegations against aid workers.
- VIFM substantiated 17 cases of sexual harassment, 6 of sexual abuse, 8 of sexual misconduct
- Peak body offered unreserved apology to victims and survivors
- All the review’s recommendations accepted, including independent statutory oversight body
The Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) launched the review after revelations senior staff at UK charity Oxfam paid Haiti earthquake survivors for sex.
The Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) has now substantiated 17 cases of sexual harassment, six of sexual abuse and eight cases of sexual misconduct.
In some cases, abuses were committed against the population the charities were trying to help. In others, fellow aid workers were harassed.
ACFID’s board acknowledged it could not undo the harm caused to victims, but could introduce reforms to prevent abuses from occurring again.
“We would like to acknowledge and apologise to the victims/survivors of sexual misconduct who have been harmed — both those we work alongside and those we exist to protect and support,” the board said in a joint statement.
VIFM only dealt with allegations voluntarily reported by 20 organisations. Another 66 groups did not report any incidents and 33 did not respond, so misconduct may be more widespread.
Sexual misconduct was committed by a mix of Australian staff and locally engaged partners. No Australians were involved in sexual abuse cases.
No victims were provided financial compensation, although 32 were offered counselling and six were given a direct apology.
‘It personally saddens me’
ACFID’s chief executive, Marc Purcell, said the review was commissioned to confront failures of the sector to protect the most vulnerable.
“This sector is built on trying to assist people that are living in poverty and suffering injustice,” Mr Purcell said.
“Any sort of behaviour where there is an abuse of power, like sexual abuse misconduct against people who are very vulnerable, is absolutely wrong and there is no place for it in this sector.”
Mr Purcell said many cases involved locally engaged staff in countries with high rates of gender-based violence, including Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Zambia.
“That doesn’t excuse sexual misconduct, it just shows that there is going to have to be redoubled efforts in those countries,” he said.
Disciplinary action was taken against 48 aid workers including firing, suspensions or referrals to police.
Industry figures told the review they were worried about the reputational cost of allegations becoming public and a loss of public funding.
“I think the only way we can stop sexual harassment in the workplace in Australia, or sexual misconduct in any sort of Australian charity program overseas, is by shining a light on it,” Mr Purcell said.
The cases involved locally engaged staff in countries with high rates of gender-based violence, including Vanuatu, where Australia helped with the Cyclone Pam recovery in 2015. (CARE Australia: Tom Perry)
Peak body accepts all recommendations
Aid agencies have agreed to create a statutory scheme — most likely managed by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission — that can provide oversight of allegations.
Senior ACFID staff told the inquiry that in a “post-royal-commission” environment, it was untenable for charities to deal with complaints without independent oversight.
They also agreed to a default position of reporting serious misconduct allegations to local police, unless there were compelling reasons not to do so in the best interests of the victim.
The report found many agencies were hesitant to refer allegations to local police because they did not trust them to complete a thorough investigation.
ACFID also agreed to address gender inequality in the sector from recruitment to training and the make-up of senior leadership.
“Sexual misconduct in the aid sector — as it is in the rest of society — is gendered,” Mr Purcell said.
The report also asked charities to do more to pre-screen staff to ensure they were not re-employing a perpetrator of sexual misconduct.