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, Megan launched a project called Report the Abuse (RTA), which encouraged other survivors of sexual violence within the aid and development community to speak out, and essentially break the silence on abuse.
Through launching a survey, RTA was able to collect data which in turn enabled the creation of tools and best practice guides to assists 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, within a climate of heightened media exposure around sex abuse - most notably in the aid and development sector following the Oxfam scandal - AidEx caught up with Megan to hear how she believes the sector has changed during this time, and what needs to be done to prevent more cases of sexual violence in the future.
It has been three years now since you spoke out publicly about your experience of sexual assault in South Sudan and set up Report the Abuse. Do you think things have changed during this time in any way?
In the last three years I think there has been remarkable change in the humanitarian community when it comes to the issue of sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces. More survivors are speaking up about their experiences and being heard. Humanitarian organisations are making concrete changes to protect their staff. Although there is still a long way to go, it is a very different landscape than when I was harmed three years ago.
How do you feel about the closure of RTA just two years after it was set up?
The closure of RTA was very hard on me. In many ways it felt like genuine grief when we closed, and I am still mourning in some aspects. However, I started RTA to begin a conversation about sexual violence in the humanitarian community, and that was what it did.
What impact did RTA have?
I believe RTA had a significant impact on the humanitarian community. I know from many survivors that it was one of the first times they felt empowered to speak up publically. 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. There is still a long way to go, but RTA has been part of that path.
If RTA was needed and still is, why do you think it struggled to get funding to continue operations? Or were there other reasons for its closure?
The reason that RTA struggled to get funding is similar to how many other smaller NGOs struggle to get funding – the current funding mechanisms for the humanitarian community are not accessible for small and new organisations. It was not because of the work being done by RTA, nor the issue it addressed. It was an unfortunate reality that smaller NGOs struggle to get access to necessary funds to do impactful and interesting work. This has been recognised as a problem in the sector, though one that has not yet been addressed.
Are there any other initiatives similar to RTA?
RTA was the first and remains the only NGO that has been created to solely address the issue of sexual violence against humanitarians.
Were you aware of the harassment faced by humanitarian staff before your personal first-hand experience?
I was, and I had experienced sexual harassment while working as humanitarian, several times before my rape in South Sudan in fact. I believe that most women, in particular, anecdotally know of sexual harassment stories from their friends, colleagues, and peers. It is still a reality of how women move through the world.
How did your experience alter your perspective of the humanitarian sector?
My experience didn’t alter my perception of the humanitarian community. I believed then, as I believe now, that the majority of humanitarians are incredible people doing hard work around the world.
How big is the issue of sexual violence against aid workers? Do you have any idea of what percentage sexual assault cases were committed by other humanitarians?
The issue of sexual violence in the aid world is real and grave. We don’t know the full extent of the problem, and likely never will, but what is known through studies like that of Report the Abuse is troubling and a signal a call for action.
What do you think about UN Chief Guterres’ emphasis on women’s equality during his address at the General Assembly? Is it enough?
I think statements like this being made by a senior-level individual such as the UN Secretary-General can have a significant impact on our perceptions of vital issues. However, unless they are back-up by concrete actions designed to have an impact, they risk remaining merely words that can float away in the wind.
Is the UN doing enough?
All humanitarian organisations are struggling to address this issue, and this includes the UN. The UN can and should be a leader on this issue, and the strengthening of its policies, creation of stronger structures, and measures to shift the still too masculine organisational culture would help other humanitarian organisations to also grow on this issue.
What measures/actions need to be in place to help prevent abuse within the humanitarian system?
Prevention starts by ensuring that known or potential perpetrators are not alloweto enter into a humanitarian organisation. It requires more thorough background and reference checks. It requires equipping Human Resources staff to be the gatekeepers to humanitarian organisations that they should be operating as.
What does abuse within the humanitarian community in particular say about global views on gender based violence/attitudes towards women?
Sexual violence is a worldwide problem. The humanitarian community is not unique in that respect, but as many humanitarian organisations project values of equality and safety for women around the globe, we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
How do you feel the media reports on this kind of abuse?
I wish survivors did not have to speak publically about their experiences with sexual violence, not because they should feel ashamed, but because too rarely do conversations around sexual violence focus on the behaviour and accountability for the perpetrator. Public narratives around sexual violence though are becoming more sensitive and less sensationalised. There is more of an understanding of the impact and reality of sexual violence, a lessening of rape myths, which is welcomed.
Do you think the recent media attention on sexual harassment in Hollywood can influence all spheres of society?
One of the most interesting aspects of the #MeToo campaign is how it has shown the breadth and depth of sexual misconduct in workplaces across the globe, including now in the humanitarian community. I believe that it is sparking vital conversations, ones that have the potential to lead to significant changes in many sectors.
How do you feel, three years on?
Three years on, in many ways I am still struggling to process my rape. There has been considerable healing, but recovery is not a linear process – some days are as down as the next ones are up. Overall though, I am hopeful. The changes that continue to happen in the humanitarian world are inspiring. Every time I see another survivor turn the corner to healing, a part of me gets further as well. There is good reason to look forward in the humanitarian community.