Many women humanitarians say sexual assaults are under reported, and the entire reporting and investigation system needs an overhaul.
Sarah Pierce (a pseudonym) wanted to help rid Africa of disease and thought becoming an aid worker was the best way to do it. In December 2014,
shortly before a contract break, she was raped in her tent by a male aid worker while working in a remote area of South Sudan.
Pierce reported the rape, and three months later her employer, the Carter Center,
an American non-governmental organization (NGO) told her she wasn't qualified to work in the field. However, she says she was terminated because she criticized her employer's failure to help her seek justice.
The rape was reported to a female supervisor the day after it happened via a phone call, and Pierce, 27, said she was interrogated on why no one heard her scream, if her tent was locked and why she hadn't reported the assault to the staff of the local non-profit. The staff was all male — some subordinates of the man who raped her.
When Pierce returned to work after the break, she talked about the incident with colleagues; she was warned to keep silent. After three months, she was called to Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, thinking she would be asked for input on policy. Instead Pierce's superior told her the current policy was appropriate.
The following day she was told her contract wouldn't be honored. A Carter Center spokeswoman said Pierce is the victim of a tragedy and the agency did what was best for her. Carter also says it will not discuss the matter publicly even if Pierce gives consent. Pierce said she only wanted to be treated "decently and with respect"
and feels she was fired because she was raped.
Recently, the International Women's Rights Project (IWRP) in Vancouver, Canada, has been trying to gather statistics on how widespread harassment and sexual assault is among humanitarian workers. More than 1,000 respondents (mostly women) answered
an IWRP survey that asks them about their experiences with unwanted sexual advances while working in the humanitarian field. The majority began telling their stories, but stopped out of fear.
Another worker in South Sudan, Megan Nobert, disclosed earlier this year that she was drugged and raped by a fellow worker on a U.N. base. She was contacted by women who described sexual assault and intimidation. Norbert, who said women fear retaliation from within their organizations, said, "There’s been a real theme of organizations saying: ‘Suck it up. This is something you should expect, even if it’s a colleague doing it.’"
Nobert, 28, worked in a Bentiu POC
(Protection of Civilians) camp for displaced persons. Amed Asmail, the man accused of raping her, worked for Life for Construction, a company subcontracted by UNICEF to drill boreholes at the camp. Allegedly, he drugged and raped Nobert, then later sent her a note apologizing for having sex with her. She reported the incident and underwent testing. A toxicology report revealed cocaine, oxycodone, morphine and codeine in her blood — drugs she had not taken. Yet her account of what happened the night of the incident was never investigated.
Further complicating the issue is confusion over the jurisdiction of U.N. employees, subcontractors and other personnel. In March, Nobert contacted the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), an independent body that takes complaints of wrong doing by U.N. workers. She said the U.N. denied responsibility and passed it on to Asmail's vendor, then denied Norbert's right to file a complaint with the U.N. Then OIOS sent the complaint back to UNICEF.
The U.N. has two divisions: An office under the secretary-general, run by the secretariat, which handles peacekeeping affairs, and another office for agencies such as UNICEF, the World Food Program, and the UN Development Program. OIOS informed Norbert that it only oversees secretariat business.
Although Nobert didn't work for the U.N., it didn't matter because her complaint was against a subcontractor's employee, who didn't work for either of the agency types. UNICEF could have asked OIOS to investigate and has failed to explain why it didn't. Asmail was paid through the end of his contract, but there was no renewal.
There was never an investigation and Nobert returned to her native Canada, and Asmail, originally from Syria, is no longer in South Sudan. He reached out to Buzzfeed News
and stated the U.N. sided with Nobert, because she is Canadian and opted to only hear her side of the story. Nobert agrees that both she and Asmail should have been able to tell what happened and that she should have been given the opportunity to present proof.