1.2 How emergencies affect sexual exploitation

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 are huge 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 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) and women are the most vulnerable to harassment and exploitation.

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 massive 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 ills, such as corruption and conflict. Humanitarian workers must therefore be held accountable to ensure there is no abuse of that power.

In an environment of perceived power imbalances, beneficiaries may be reluctant to report sexual harassment/exploitation for any of the following reasons:

  • fear that source of income/support may be cut off
  • fear of reprisal or further abuse
  • fear of backlash on their family members
  • lack of support from family
  • lack of education
  • inherent hierarchy between CARE staff and beneficiary group
  • fear of being disbelieved
  • lack of information about the complaints and response mechanisms
  • mistrust/lack of confidence in the system
  • fear of losing status/loss of reputation
  • cultural norms and practices
  • acceptance of behaviour by minimising or denying its impact.