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Oct 8, 2018

Oxfam India responds to sexual misconduct by Oxfam GB staff during Haiti Earthquake response in 2010

Oxfam India

You may have come across recent reports in the international media regarding news of sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in Haiti seven years ago. As shocking as this may have been for many of our supporters, we want to make it clear that our organisation is committed to human rights and gender equality. We have zero tolerance for violence against women in general and sexual violence in particular. The news is extremely disheartening but a wake-up call to work harder than ever towards the goal of gender justice. Above all, it is a motivation to look within.   

In 2011 a few members of the large contingent of staff deployed by Oxfam GB (OGB) in response to the devastating earthquake in the island nation were accused of sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as other unacceptable behaviour. Such conduct is totally contrary to Oxfam's values and the high standards expected of our staff everywhere and at all levels. Accordingly, OGB immediately undertook an internal investigation. While four members of staff found guilty of grave misconduct were dismissed, three -including the country director- resigned before the end of the investigation and two others faced disciplinary action. Oxfam has not and would not provide a positive reference for any of those that were dismissed or resigned as a result of the case.

The investigation into this case and others resulted in the creation of a dedicated Safeguarding Team as well as the establishment of a confidential 'whistleblowing' phone line within OGB. These measures were meant to prevent sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse and improve the handling of complaints and allegations. 

Oxfam International (a network of 20 Oxfams across the world), too, has put in place a Global Taskforce on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment, Exploitation & Abuse, co-chaired by Oxfam International's Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima. An updated, global Code of Conduct ratified in October 2017 by the Executive Board explicitly forbids such misconduct by anyone associated with any Oxfams across the world. 

Oxfam India (OIN), too, stands firmly against the exploitation and abuse of women and girls. We have adopted a best practice package of measures to ensure that we protect all our staff, and prevent sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse. If and when such reprehensible behaviour occurs, our priority is to stand fully by the survivors and to ensure that such misconduct is absolutely rooted out of our organisation. This approach also applies to all the partners OIN works with in India.

We believe the fact that the misconduct in Haiti took place seven years ago and involved a small number of staff is no cause for complacency. This is, unfortunately, not the first case of sexual misconduct Oxfam has faced internationally in recent months.

There is no doubt that, as a global alliance committed to justice and long known for humanitarian assistance, we need to take more effective action to improve the work culture within the federation, as well as each of our organisations. We are convinced that we must also create the strongest possible policies to protect the people we work with around the world and prevent any harassment or abuse of vulnerable persons. We in Oxfam India are fully committed to these goals.

We want to use this opportunity to reiterate that the confidential 'whistleblowing' line set up by OGB is available to all Oxfam staff as well as all the people we work with. We are convinced that the only way to change work culture and make the safeguarding system effective is to be open and transparent.

Nisha Agrawal, the then CEO of Oxfam India (as of March 31st 2018), summed up our stand when she said, "We are deeply distressed by what has happened. As an organisation fighting for women’s rights around the world, we have a special responsibility to protect our staff, partners, volunteers and the people we exist to serve from sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse." 

An Independent Commission has been formed in response to incidents of sexual misconduct by Oxfam staff in countries including Chad and Haiti and concerns about the way Oxfam responded to them at the time. 

Zainab Bangura, a former Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, and Katherine Sierra, a former Vice-President of the World Bank, will co-chair an Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change.

Ms Bangura served until recently as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. She was formerly Sierra Leone’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Ms Sierra was formerly the World Bank’s Vice-President for Human Resources and Sustainable Development. She co-led a World Bank Global Task Force to Tackle Gender-Based Violence.

Bangura and Sierra head an independent group of experts from around the world who will look into all aspects of Oxfam’s culture, policies and practises relating to the safe-guarding of staff, volunteers and beneficiaries.

 The other Independent Commissioners are:

  1. Aya Chebbi, co-founder of the Voice of Women Initiative and founding chair of Afrika Youth Movement
  2. James Cottrell, formerly the Global Chief Ethics Officer and Global Chief Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility Officer at Deloitte
  3. Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women
  4. Birgitta Ohlsson, MP and former Minister for European Union Affairs in Sweden;
  5. Katharina Samara-Wickrama, director of the Issues Affecting Women Programme (IAWP) at the Oak Foundation 

The Independent Commission will present a report with recommendations on what more Oxfam and the wider aid sector can do to create a culture of zero tolerance for any kind of sexual harassment, abuse or exploitation. The findings and recommendations of the Independent Commission will be made public. 

Katherine Sierra said, “I have undertaken to help lead this Independent Commission because it is essential to understand what went wrong in the past, whether or not actions taken by Oxfam since 2011 have been effective in reducing the risk of such incidents, and what more they can do now to minimize the chance of such things happening again and to ensure that any incidents that do occur are responded to appropriately, including in terms of the support provided to victims and survivors. I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners to identify the challenging and crucial lessons, both for Oxfam and the wider humanitarian and development sectors.”

Zainab Bangura said, “I have long admired the work of Oxfam and other aid agencies whose staff often risk their lives to help others in terribly difficult situations. That’s why so many of us were deeply concerned to see the reports of what some former Oxfam staff did in Haiti. We will ensure that we put the survivors and victims of abuse at the heart of our enquiries as we work to understand how the aid sector can become a safer place for all.”

Oxfam’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said, “We are grateful to the eminent women and men who have agreed to serve on this Independent Commission. Oxfam recognize that the Commission’s independence must be paramount in order to provide transparency and accountability to our partners, the public, and above all to the survivors of abuse. We must now ensure Oxfam and our sector is doing everything we can to be a place of safety and dignity for all women and men.”

The Independent Commission is part of a number of measures Oxfam is taking to improve safeguarding. In the past three weeks Oxfam has tripled its funding to safeguarding and doubled the size of its dedicated support teams. It has announced new measures to ensure that no staff member can get a reference in Oxfam’s name without it being approved first by an accredited referee. Oxfam has committed to work with others in the sector on a humanitarian passport-ing system that would stop offenders from moving from one organization to another.

It has also strengthened its whistle-blowing processes and is encouraging people to come forward if they have ever experienced or witnessed exploitation or abuse from any Oxfam staff member. 

We trust that our supporters will recognise, as we do, that the actions of a few do not represent all that Oxfam stands for, and will continue to believe in our work towards a better life for all, especially the most vulnerable people in our society.





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