Photo: Luigi Morante, Flickr Creative Commons. Please note: The woman depicted is unrelated to the topics discussed in this article
The #MeToo movements triggered a global social revolution against sexual intimidation, assault, and harassment. It has led to the shocking truth that the United Nations is not the safe haven for women and gender equality that it pretends to be. The Guardian spoke with many U.N. employees that unanimously described a culture of silence across the organization in combination with an ineffective grievance system which deliberately fails to punish the perpetrators.
Fifteen of the interviewed employees stated to have been the victim of sexual intimidation, assault or rape within the past five years while working for the U.N. Out of these fifteen, seven women have formally reported the assaults to the authorities that are created to battle these affairs. This low amount of reported violations has to do with the great fear of losing their job and in the assumption that no further will be taken by the U.N. authorities.
“If you report it, your career is pretty much over, especially if you’re a consultant,” said one consultant to the Guardian, who alleged she was harassed by her supervisor while working for the World Food Programme. “It’s like an unsaid thing.”
U.N. Staff in over 10 countries spoke with The Guardian under only one condition: total anonymity. The demand for total anonymity has two key reasons; Firstly, U.N. staff is precluded from talking publicly according to by internal U.N. Rules and secondly, the fear of retaliation. Just in the past year, several cases are known that victims who reported sexual harassment have been forced out of their jobs or have been threatened with the termination of their U.N. contract. The alleged perpetrators remain within the U.N. without punishment or reprimand.
Some of the victims have lost hope of justice, "Even when you summon your courage to complain and you exhaust all the internal mechanisms, like I did, all the resources, all the processes, there’s nothing for you,” a victim said to the Guardian. “They mobilise friends, colleagues against you. I had threats, sent through friends, that ‘She will never set foot in this office again.’”.
The U.N. justice system repeatedly fails to protect victims and follow up on cases of sexual harassment and assault. Peter Gallo, a former O.I.O.S. investigator who left the U.N. in 2015, confirms this statement, declaring that he witnessed evidence being ignored and facts being twisted on a routine basis. “As an investigator, I was told I should ‘never ask questions just to satisfy my curiosity,’” he told The Guardian. “The only rule is not to publicly embarrass the organization.”
In a statement published in the Guardian, the U.N. pledges to “look at strengthening our capacities to investigate reports and to support victims”. Additionally, they said that António Guterres (U.N. Secretary-General) has appointed a victims’ rights advocate and formed a task force in order to battle sexual harassment, to review current policies and strengthen ongoing investigations within the United Nations. The U.N. will also carry out a survey to measure the extent of the problem, and introduce a trustable and objective helpline for people who are seeking advice.
The United Nations' Global Goal number 5 is “Gender Equality”; goal number 8 is “Decent Work and Economic Growth”; and goal number 10 is to "Reduce Inequalities". As the United Nations clearly states: "Guided by the goals, it is now up to all of us, governments, businesses, civil society and the general public to work together to build a better future for everyone." In this area, the U.N. and International Organizations must act as a role model and lead by example. We can expect no less.
If you or anyone you know working in humanitarian organizations has been affected and would like to report it, the Guardian has opened up a site where you can anonymously share your story.
We also encourage people with professional experience in this area to share their expertise on how to deal with these issues.
If you want to work with prevention and help people that have been affected: