Aidex Voices

An aid worker who was raped three years ago says there is reason to be hopeful as more survivors speak out than ever before, but organisations must now turn talk into action.

Three years ago, humanitarian aid worker Megan Nobert was drugged and raped by another humanitarian while on a mission in South Sudan. After going public about her experience, Nobert launched a project called Report the Abuse (RTA), which encouraged other survivors of sexual violence within the community to speak out, and essentially break the silence on sex abuse.

Through launching a survey, RTA was able to collect data which in turn enabled the creation of tools and best practice guides to assist organisations in addressing sexual violence amongst staff. Just two years later however, in August 2017, the organisation ceased operations due to funding insufficiencies.

Three years on, in a climate of heightened media exposure around sex abuse - most notably in the aid and development sector following the Oxfam scandal – in a recent interview with AidEx, Nobert said she believes the sector has changed during this time and outlined what needs to be done to prevent more cases of sexual violence in the future. 

RTA was founded to begin a conversation about sexual violence in the humanitarian community and according to its founder, the organisation had a significant impact:

“I know from many survivors that it was one of the first times they felt empowered to speak up publicly. It inspired survivors to file complaints with their organisations, and it resulted in all major humanitarian organisations taking the first steps towards changing how they prevent and address sexual violence in their workplaces.”

RTA remains the only NGO that was solely established to address the issue of sexual violence against humanitarians, and results of the survey it conducted showed that 85% knew of someone who has been a victim while working as a humanitarian. Yet, after just two years the organisation was forced to close. Nobert says it was not because of the nature of the work, but rather “an unfortunate reality that smaller NGOs struggle to get access to necessary funds to do impactful and interesting work.”

Prior to being raped in South Sudan, Nobert had experienced sexual harassment several times and knew of many colleagues who had shared similar stories. Has her own story altered her perception of the humanitarian community? Nobert is resolute that this is not the case, stating: “I believed then, as I believe now, that the majority of humanitarians are incredible people doing hard work around the world.”  After all, whilst the humanitarian community is expected to behave with utmost virtuosity due to the nature of the work, ultimately sexual violence is a global problem and we have a responsibility to ensure all organisations are working to uphold the highest standards.

As safeguarding measures are rolled out across organisations within the international NGO sector and beyond, acquiring full scalability of sexual violence is unlikely. Nobert remarks however that through studies like Report the Abuse, what we have found out “signals a call for action” and it will take bodies like the UN to be a leader on this issue; strengthening policies, creating more robust structures and implementing measures to shift the “still too masculine organisational culture”.

“Prevention starts by ensuring that known or potential perpetrators are not allowed to enter into a humanitarian organisation” she adds, placing emphasis on the need to equip human resources to be the gatekeepers.

Too often, conversations around sexual violence rarely focus on the behaviour and accountability for the perpetrator, says Nobert. “Public narratives around sexual violence though are becoming more sensitive and less sensationalised”, she continues, referring to the increase in understanding of the impact and reality of sexual violence demonstrable in the decline of rape myths.

The #MeToo campaign in line with a wave of recent revelations, from Weinstein to Oxfam, has shown the scale of sexual misconduct in workplaces around the world. Nobert sees this media attention positively, remarking on how “it is sparking vital conversations, ones that have the potential to lead to significant changes in many sectors.”

Three years after being raped, Megan Nobert admits she continues to struggle in many ways, with the healing being far from a linear process. Overall however, she finds hope in other survivors, and believes “there is good reason to look forward in the humanitarian community”. There has been a “remarkable change”, with more survivors speaking out about their experiences than ever before.

Sex abuse scandals are currently a hot media topic, with the humanitarian sector in the spotlight and a space more open than ever for abuse to be reported. From holding safeguarding summits to releasing statements promising to do better, for true progress to take place, actions will speak louder than words. It is now down to organisations across the globe to practice what they preach if we want to end sexual violence in all workplaces for once and for all.

This article was published in Crisis Response Journal, Vol: 13, Issue 3