Why prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse is important in an emergency response

CARE’s vision requires us to focus on discrimination, dignity, security and human rights as central to our work of eliminating poverty. Protection from sexual harassment exploitation, abuse and child abuse is an issue that goes to the heart of our vision and values, and we must to uphold these values in our programmes as well as in all our interactions with programme participants, community members our partners and within the organisation.

Our work to prevent and respond to exploitation and abuse of people of concern is based on principles enshrined in international and national laws protecting refugees and displaced people, and in measures for the protection of beneficiaries from exploitation and abuse, such as the United Nations Secretary General’s Bulletin.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989) provides a comprehensive code of rights that offers the highest standards of protection and assistance for children of any international instrument.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (A/RES/48/104) (DEVAW) set the standards for the protection of the rights of women and girls. The declaration affirms that violence against women (including sexual exploitation) is a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and impairs their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms. It notes that refugee women are ‘especially vulnerable to violence’.

Additionally, staff working in a country should always refer to the national law of the state and the various mechanisms for their implementation.

The protection from   sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse, and child abuse in an emergency response is of paramount importance by every aid organisation, the impact that sexual misconduct and abuse can have in such situations on those affected, and the longer-term effect on recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation can be life-long and catastrophic. While this section focuses on taking necessary steps to prevent the risk of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse and child abuse, equally critical are precautions and measures for managing those risks and sexual harassment within programme management as they occur. Some of these steps are included in section 2.3.

Emergencies demand responsible, proactive and inclusive programming that takes all necessary precautions to prevent the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. Careful analysis must be conducted to determine ways in which power balances have shifted and implications these changes have on programmes.

Some practical examples from our work on how simple measures can reduce the incidence of sexual harassment exploitation and abuse, and child abuse include:

  • special considerations in the spatial design of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps
  • IDP camps with separate bathing areas for men and women
  • employing female distribution officers designing projects that target men to reduce sexual exploitation and abuse cases
  • designing strategies to disseminate the relief entitlements and criteria to all potential beneficiaries, and public validations of beneficiary lists.

For further, practical measures on how to prevent, and respond to incidents of SHEA-CA please refer to CARE’s Safer Programming Guidelines.

We are accountable to those whom we work for and with. It is of paramount importance that we conduct ourselves in a professional manner and make sincere efforts towards preventing and eliminating sexual exploitation and abuse.

In December 2006, CARE reiterated its resolve to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse by signing the statement of commitment developed jointly by a number of UN and non-UN agencies (PSEA taskforce).



CARE, along with the wider international development and humanitarian action sector, has committed to a number of international standards relating to safeguarding and prevention of sexual exploitation, harassment, abuse, and child abuse of programme participants, community members, staff and related personnel by aid workers.

In 2018 and 2019 the major governmental donors who formed the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD agreed that their work and that of all their partners (which included CARE), should adhere to the ISC and/or CHS standards.

UN Secretary General’s Bulletin on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (ST/SGB/2003/13)

In December 2006, CARE re-affirmed its endorsement to the six core principles defined in this bulletin. CARE has adapted the six core principles within its CI PSEA-CA Policy, and the CI Safeguarding Code of Conduct. The bulletin clearly defines behaviours which are prohibited including prohibiting payment or the exchange of goods or services for sex, prohibiting sexual activity with any person under 18, requiring all staff and related personnel to report their concerns of SEA by any aid worker and for management and leadership to create an environment conducive to a positive safeguarding culture.  The bulletin applies to all UN personnel and partner staff, and any organisation in receipt of UN funding.

Statement of Commitment on Eliminating Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN and Non-UN Personnel

In December 2006, CARE, alongside the wider humanitarian sector, made commitments to achieve the six core principles outlined in the UN Secretary General’s Bulletin, 2003. These commitments have been expanded upon and included within the CI PSEA-CA Policy and adapted for the CI Safeguarding Code of Conduct.

IASC Six Core Principles Relating to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, 2019

In September 2019 the Inter Agency Standing Committee published the Six Core Principles, superseding the 2002 version. The principles provide a useful basis for organisations wanting to develop policies and procedures for preventing and responding to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.

The principles make clear the behaviours that are not permitted by humanitarian workers, as well as obligations to report concerns, and maintain an environment which prevents harm, with a particular focus on manager’s responsibilities. The principles require SEA to be treated as gross misconduct, with the potential for dismissal, prohibit staff for paying or exchanging goods for sex, prohibits sexual activity with anyone under the age of 18 and prohibits exploitative relationships with programme participants, or partners.  It applies to all UN staff and any person working in partnership with/ receiving funds from them.

IASC Minimum Operating Standards: Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Own Personnel (MOS-PSEA)

The IASC Task Force developed eight Minimum Operating Standards (MOS-PSEA) organized under four pillars as a framework to standardise the way the UN and anyone who received funding from the UN protects community members from experiences SEA by their own staff. It does not cover sexual harassment of staff within the workplace. In March 2013, the IASC published Guidelines to Implement the MOS-PSEA.

The eight MOS-PSEA were endorsed by the IASC Task Force on PSEA members, including CARE International, in April 2012. The MOS-PSEA required the organisation and its partners to have a policy in place to prevent SEA. It requires local offices and partners to inform communities about the steps the organisation takes to prevent SEA including have a contextually appropriate reporting mechanism in place, access to support for survivors, safer recruitment processes are implemented and training on the MOS-PSEA.

The MOS-PSEA applied to all UN staff and anyone working with or receiving funds from them. When partnering with the UN, you must agree to follow the standards. DAC donors also require adherence to the MOS-PSEA or the CHS.

Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS)

The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) sets out nine common commitments, across the Humanitarian sector, designed to create a common approach to delivering humanitarian assistance to communities affected by crisis, with the aim of improving the quality and effectiveness of their assistance. Within the CHS there are a number of commitments relating to PSEA, contribution to creating safer organisations:

Commitment 3 – Localisation and Do No Harm – Humanitarian response strengthen local capacities and avoids negative effects. Organisations must have policies in place to prevent and respond to SEA.

Commitment 5 – Complaints Management – Complaints are welcomed and addressed. Communities must be informed of the organisations work to prevent SEA and reporting and investigations procedures must priorities the safety and needs of the survivor.

A CHS PSEAH Index was published in 2020, when sexual harassment was included for the first time in the verification process..

Confederation-wide self-assessments take place around CARE’s performance to the Core Humanitarian Standards. CARE recently underwent external verification and is currently working towards addressing the gaps identified.

For more information about the Core Humanitarian Standard in general and CARE’s self-assessments and the verification as it relates to PSEA please contact Uwe Korus, M&E and Accountability Coordinator, CEG, korus@careinternational.org

OECD-DAC Recommendation PSHEA  

In 2019, CARE worked with a small group of Civil Society Organisation to input into the development of the DAC Recommendation for Ending Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, and Sexual Harassment. The document was created as governments that provide funding for development and humanitarian work wanted to standardise their work to prevent and respond to SHEA. CARE remains part of the DAC SEAH Reference Group, represented by the CI Safeguarding Coordinator.

The recommendation prioritises the rights, needs and wants of survivors of SEAH. Organisations that receive funding must have a policy and code of conduct in place which addresses SEAH, as well as confidential and accessible reporting mechanisms for staff, partners, community members and programme participants. The recommendation specifically refers to the IAS MOS PSEA and the CHS as ‘essential international standards’ thus it focuses on donors’ application of existing international standards rather than creating new ones.

Governments who are part of DAC, and organisations they work with must ensure their SHEA work is guidance by the recommendation. For those governments and organisations who are not members of DAC, they are encouraged to adhere to the documents, as some UN organisations have done.

The International Child Safeguarding Standards, Keeping Children Safe

These four standards – policy, people, procedures and accountability – were first launched in 2002 to ensure that organisations adhered to the principle of ‘do no harm’ when working with children, meeting the responsibilities set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and protection children from all forms of violence, abuse, harm and neglect. The standards were updated in 2018 in recognition that risks to children can be posed not only by staff and associates but also through poorly designed programmes and operational management.

The standards require organisations coming into contact with children to have a Child Safeguarding Policy in place, all staff and related personnel working with children are training and supported to safeguard them, and specific child safeguarding measures are integrated within all organisational activities, processes and procedures. They also require child friend, safe and accessible reporting mechanisms to be available to all.

The standard is currently voluntary for any organisation, but they are especially relevant to those who are working directly with, or who’s work may involve or impact children.

Further resources:

For more information on how to apply the standards and recommendations, refer to the RSH How-to note on applying SEAH sector standards.