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Published: March 22, 2018

Duty of Care and Sexual Violence in the Humanitarian Community

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This op-ed was written by Megan Nobert and Christine Williamson. The opinions expressed in this op-ed belong to the authors and do not reflect the opinions of the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) or any employee thereof.

Megan Nobert is a Canadian legal professional and academic specialised in international criminal law and human rights. She is also a humanitarian, having worked in in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and South Sudan on issues of humanitarian law, protection, and gender-based violence. Megan is also the Founder and former Director of Report the Abuse, the first and only global NGO to work solely on the issue of sexual violence against humanitarian aid workers.

Christine Williamson is a senior HR and Duty of Care specialist. For the past 20 years, Christine has worked in highly challenging environments and supported and led the HR function in many humanitarian responses across Africa and Asia and HQ settings. She has published articles, guides and tools and undertaken extensive research on people management and duty of care issues. She founded and leads Duty of Care International.


In the past few weeks, information has surfaced about historical cases of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) committed by a small number of Oxfam staff members in Haiti in 2011. The scale of this issue in the sector as a whole is still unclear but as the voices of survivors increase and grow, the need for humanitarian actors to take concrete action similarly increases. At the heart of this issue is staff behaviour and breaches of organisational codes of conduct. Another manifestation of this predatory behaviour is sexual violence against fellow aid workers. The sexual exploitation and abuse of beneficiaries and sexual violence against humanitarian colleagues have been serious concerns within the aid sector for years but have only become more prominent in recent months in light of the well-publicised #MeToo and #AidToo movements emerging from the entertainment, media and non-profit sectors.

Humanitarian organisations have a duty of care to their beneficiaries and staff. While it is of the utmost importance to safeguard beneficiaries, it is equally vital that NGOs meet their duty of care to their own personnel. By putting their house in order and tackling predatory behaviour and staff misconduct, NGOs will be able to properly address and eradicate the abuse of beneficiaries as well as violence amongst aid workers.

While recognising the close link between safeguarding aid workers and safeguarding beneficiaries from sexual exploitation and abuse, this blog builds on the paper we published through Report the Abuse in 2017 on ‘Duty of Care: Protection of Humanitarian Aid Workers from Sexual Violence’, and focuses primarily on sexual violence against aid workers.

Many aid organisations acknowledge their duty of care – both legal and moral – to provide safe living and workplaces for their staff. Yet, what this means in both practice and theory is still unclear. This blog piece aims to answer some of these lingering questions.

Legal Duty of Care

Legal duty of care refers to the legal obligations an employer has to protect their personnel from harm or injury in the workplace. In most jurisdictions, this is often framed in the language of workplace health and safety, equality and anti-discrimination regulations or laws. The legal framework can vary between countries, and standards may be different from location to location. Whatever the context, organisations are required to understand the risks their personnel face, the measures they should put in place to mitigate these, and share this understanding and these measures with their staff.

Humanitarian aid workers should take on their roles, particularly in more dangerous locations, with informed consent. This means that they have the best available knowledge about the environment and their role, they understand the risks and how their organisation will mitigate these, and knowingly consent to move and work in the context in question knowing there are these risks. However, this does not alleviate the responsibility of the organisation as an employer to provide a working and living environment that is as healthy, safe and secure as reasonably possible throughout the entirety of an employee’s working cycle.

Moral Duty of Care

It is also important to take into account the moral duty of care humanitarian organisations owe to their staff. Moral duty of care knows no jurisdiction, and is not set out in the same explicit way as legal duty of care. Having a moral duty of care can be seen as setting standards that go above and beyond the legal minimum and there is an expectation within the NGO sector that humanitarian organisations enhance their practices and support for staff especially in high-risk environments.

Humanitarian organisations have already set standards for moral duty of care related to how they undertake humanitarian operations. They employ the principle of ‘do no harm’ and prohibit acts of sexual exploitation and abuse. The aid sector has created codes, such as the Sphere Handbook and the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS). The donor community has created the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative to guide how it provides funding. So there are already expectations that humanitarian organisations will accept and adhere to a moral type of duty of care when it comes to implementing programming and interacting with the local population. This moral duty of care principle must also extend to the provision of a safe and secure workplace for humanitarian staff, including the prevention and appropriate response to incidents of sexual violence.

The reasons for adhering to duty of care are clear – not doing so can cause considerable harm to individuals and organisations as seen with the legal action taken by Steve Dennis against his former employer, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the mishandling of the sexual misconduct cases in Oxfam. Ignoring or neglecting duty of care can place the organisation, its staff, and its reputation at risk. Whilst implementing resilient duty of care measures requires resources – including multiple prevention measures, policies, procedures, training, competent staff, and the engagement of all key stakeholders and decision-makers – there is strong argument that the cost of not doing so is higher than acting; this particular point can and should also be made clear to donors.

In Practice

Broadly speaking, humanitarian organisations need to consider what systems it has in place to protect its staff from risks; it is vital that these systems also account for sexually violent acts against staff members, including attacks that come from outside the humanitarian community as well as within. Organisations must examine questions such as:

  • Are there prevention measures, policies, and procedures in place to address different forms of sexual violence?
  • Are staff members in various roles appropriately trained?
  • Are those expected to interact with survivors comfortable doing so?
  • Does the organisational culture support staff reporting incidents of sexual violence?
  • Is the organisation conducting transparent, professional, and impartial investigative or inquiry processes?
  • Do staff members at all levels of the organisation understand their rights and obligations to the creation and maintenance of safe, secure and healthy workplaces and living environments?

Considerations when it comes to this issue must centre on good people management for the prevention of all types of misconduct, and starts at the recruitment stage. While recruitment will always carry a duty of care component, this is particularly essential in terms of sexual violence. Current information on the issue strongly suggests there are serial perpetrators in the humanitarian system. If individuals known to have committed acts of sexual violence are being hired by a humanitarian organisation, the organisation may be neglecting its duty to undertake thorough personnel checks; as it is entirely foreseeable that a previous perpetrator of sexual violence will commit future acts. What becomes problematic is when perpetrators are suspected, how does one organisation share this information with another? This has been a significant part of the conversation about the Oxfam situation, hopefully leading towards sector-wide initiatives to prevent floating perpetrators.

There is evidence that known or suspected perpetrators of sexual violence within the humanitarian system are moved between offices or promoted; any such act would clearly violate an organisation’s duty of care towards its staff. These types of acts perpetuate impunity and create environments where sexually violent acts are not only foreseeable, but probable.

The overarching theme for a humanitarian organisation to meet its duty of care regarding sexual violence is zero-tolerance: organisations must have well-designed, well-managed, and trusted feedback systems and policies for risk management, informed consent, bullying and harassment, grievance, discipline, health and wellbeing, as well as critical and post-incident procedures including redress measures, to instil a culture of no tolerance.

Ensuring that messaging on the prohibition of sexual violence acts is clear, repeatedly mentioned, and backed up by action when incidents occur is obligatory – it should be the thread that runs through all the policies and practices that prevent and address this critical issue. Anything less than zero-tolerance for sexual violence acts will likely fail in an analysis of organisational duty of care.


With close attention being paid to sexual violence within the humanitarian community, and staff members calling for better protection, clearer policies, more robust practices and a total empathy approach to psychosocial support, the time to respond is now. It is, after all, a humanitarian organisation’s legal and moral duty of care to provide it.


Sources and further reading

Red Cross General Counsel David Meltzer Resigns Over Handling of Sexual Assault and Harassment Allegations, Justin Elliot and Ariana Tobin, ProPublica, 1 February 2018, https://www.propublica.org/article/red-cross-general-counsel-david-meltzer-resigns-over-handling-of-sexual-assault-and-harassment-allegations

U.N. agencies vow to ramp up the fight against sexual harassment, Umberto Bacchi, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 31 January 2018, http://news.trust.org/item/20180131134428-arv21/

Five guidelines for security risk management personnel: how to address sexual violence, Megan Nobert, GISF, 29 January 2018,


WFP Statement on New Actions to Combat Sexual Harassment, World Food Programme (WFP), Thomson Reuters Foundation, 24 January 2018, http://news.trust.org/item/20180124142516-xjfzl/

UN is dealing with sexual harassment, Jan Beagle, The Guardian, 21 January 2018,


Ending Sexual Harassment and Abuse at the UN, Mark Lowcock and William L. Swing, 16 January 2018, Project Syndicate, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/united-nations-sexual-abuse-policies-by-mark-lowcock-and-william-l–swing-2018-01?utm_content=buffere3176&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

#MeToo in Aid Agencies, Monica Jimenez, Tufts, 19 December 2017,


Addressing Sexual Violence in Humanitarian Organisations: Good Practices for Improved Prevention Measures, Policies, and Procedures, Megan Nobert, Report the Abuse, August 2017, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/resource/addressing-sexual-violence-in-humanitarian-organisations-good-practices-for-improved-prevention-measures-policies-and-procedures/

Opinion: Duty of care starts with recruitment, Christine Williamson, Devex, 25 July 2017, https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-duty-of-care-starts-with-recruitment-90701

Security Risk Management: a basic guide for smaller NGOs, Shaun Bickley, GISF, 29 June 2017, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/resource/security-risk-management-a-basic-guide-for-smaller-ngos/

Voluntary Guidelines on the Duty of Care to Seconded Civilian Personnel, Maarten Merkelbach, ZIF, 26 April 2017, http://www.zif-berlin.org/en/about-zif/news/detail/article/veroeffentlichung-der-voluntary-guidelines-on-the-duty-of-care-to-seconded-civilian-personnel.html

Protection of Humanitarian Action Series: Duty of Care and Sexual Violence, ATHA, 19 April 2017, http://atha.se/podcasts/protection-humanitarian-action-series-duty-care-and-sexual-violence

People Management, Christine Williamson, in Security to go: a risk management toolkit for humanitarian agencies, 2nd Edition , GISF, 28 March 2017,   https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/resource/security-to-go-a-risk-management-toolkit-for-humanitarian-aid-agencies/

Why should we address sexual violence in humanitarian workplaces?, Megan Nobert, GISF, 3 March 2017, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/news/why-should-we-address-sexual-violence-in-humanitarian-workplaces-2/

Safety and Security Concerns: Sexual Violence against Humanitarian Aid Workers, Megan Nobert,  Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA), 25 January 2017, http://www.atha.se/blog/safety-and-security-concerns-sexual-violence-against-humanitarian-aid-workers

Duty of Care: A review of the Dennis v Norwegian Refugee Council ruling and its implications, Maarten Merkelbach and Edward Kemp, GISF, 21 September 2016, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/resource/duty-of-care-a-review-of-the-dennis-v-norwegian-refugee-council-ruling-and-its-implications/

Dennis vs Norwegian Refugee Council: implications for duty of care, Kelsey Hoppe and Christine Williamson, Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN), 18 April 2016, https://odihpn.org/blog/dennis-vs-norwegian-refugee-council-implications-for-duty-of-care/

Can you get sued? Legal liability of international humanitarian aid organisations towards their staff , Maarten Merkelbach and Edward Kemp, Security Management Initiative, November 2011, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/resource/can-you-get-sued-legal-liability-of-international-humanitarian-aid-organisations-towards-their-staff/

Gender and Security: Guidelines for Mainstreaming Gender in Security Risk Management, Christine Persaud, GISF, 1 September 2010, https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/resource/gender-and-security-guidelines-for-mainstreaming-gender-in-security-risk-management/

Personnel management and security, Christine Williamson, HPN, June 2010, https://odihpn.org/magazine/personnel-management-and-security/

Code of good practice in the management and support of aid personnel, People in Aid, September 2003, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/people-aid-code-good-practice-management-and-support-aid-personnel


Managing Sexual Violence Against Aid Workers: prevention, preparedness, response and aftercare

This GISF guide aims to support aid agencies in preventing, being prepared for and responding to incidents of sexual violence against their staff. It is intended as a good practice guide to help strengthen existing processes and support organisations as they set up their own protocols.

Safeguarding Aid Workers

This GISF article by Megan Nobert, founder of Report the Abuse, explores the safeguarding of aid workers.

SIIM Podcast: Sexual Violence: Ensuring lessons are learned while remaining survivor-focused

In episode four of the Humanitarian Incidents podcast, Megan Nobert shares her advice on how NGOs should respond if a member of staff reports an incident of sexual violence.