How emergencies affect sexual exploitation

Women and children affected by crises – natural disasters, armed conflicts, and complex humanitarian emergencies – are particularly at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse because they need humanitarian assistance. Sexual exploitation and abuse by those employed by and representing organisations which serve to aid and protect is an appalling protection failure and a violation of universally recognized international legal norms and standards.

In an emergency, there is often a breakdown of normal protective institutions such as the family, community, government and police. Sustainable means of livelihood are affected, and there can be significant psychosocial implications on the lives of people affected. In such a scenario, the likelihood of exploitation or abuse, especially of a sexual nature, increases due to increased vulnerability and powerlessness experienced by those who survive the emergency situation. The urgent nature of work in emergencies also creates additional challenges in addressing sexual exploitation and abuse.

Often, sexual exploitation and abuse, and child abuse is the direct result of power inequality within work and community relationships. Emergencies can shift the power balances that existed within communities. This shift in power can increase the vulnerabilities of certain groups. For example, a large number of children could be separated from their parents. As a group, children (boys and girls under the age of 18, in accordance with the UN CRC) and women are often the most vulnerable to harassment, exploitation and abuse.

There are many sources of power, including position and level of formal authority, gender and education, which create power imbalances between humanitarian workers and beneficiaries. In addition, the substantial resources (food and non-food items) that come with the emergencies contribute heavily to change positions of power by further increasing the power that humanitarian workers have. These resources contribute not only to increased likelihood of sexual exploitation, but also to other forms of exploitation, corruption, fraud, harassment and conflict. Employees must therefore be held accountable to ensure there is no abuse of that power.

In an environment of perceived power imbalances, programme participants and community members may be reluctant to report sexual harassment/exploitation. Reasons can include but are not limited to:

  • fear of reprisal or further abuse
  • feat that they will not be believed fear that source of income/support may be cut off
  • fear of backlash on their family / community members
  • lack of support from family due to fear of losing access to aid and/or stigma
  • hierarchy between CARE staff and community members
  • lack of awareness about the complaints and response mechanisms available
  • inability to access safe, appropriate, accessible reporting systems
  • mistrust/lack of confidence in the reporting systems and the organisation
  • fear of losing status/loss of reputation
  • harmful cultural norms and practices, and stigma
  • acceptance of behaviour by minimising or denying its impact.