Let’s show the extent of sexual assault and harassment among people “doing good” around the world.
By Jennifer Lentfer of how-matters.org
“‘Me too’ is about using the power of empathy to stomp out shame.” ~Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement*
Many, far too many of us in the “social good” sector have experienced it:
“Chiefs of party who had their local admin assistants sit in their offices… sometimes in their laps.”
“A very uncomfortable exchange with a foundation staff person (grantor) once and myself (grantee).”
“White American or European contractors in war zones, that’s where I experienced the worst of it. Mostly drunk but not always…No clue what female staff [from those countries] might have experienced.”
“Many a meeting where our team of amazing women is oggled, patronized, ignored, and undervalued.”
“Some of the most supposedly ‘progressive’ activists have the most oppressive sexual politics. It’s a thing.”
“[Men are fired.] And then turn up in other countries working for other donors/organizations.”
Indeed, #MeToo applies also to women (and to a vastly lesser extent, men, also recognized) who are trying to change the world. This is why it often carries such a deep level of disappointment for us. Our experiences in the sector are part of a systemic problem – perhaps one we even want to address in our work – that is, a global pandemic of predatory behavior and gender inequality.
Presidencies across the world have been marred by sexual assault allegations. So have entire aid agencies…or have they? From sexual abuse of refugee children by INGO staff in West Africa in 2002 to the rape of female aid workers to a U.N. child sex ring reported in Haiti earlier this year, the social good sector is rife allegations of (but rarely consequences for) sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct. That is why #MeToo applies to us as well.
People around the world experienced a #MeToo mainstream media moment recently, born of a long-standing U.S. movement that started with survivors talking to survivors. Regardless of the appropriate criticisms of this viral moment – that it burdened the survivors rather than the harm-doers or that it benefitted from the intellectual property of Black women – what it did was disallow people from ignoring the extent of the problem.
So I’m asking all of us to do the same for our industry – for all the people working in international humanitarian and development aid agencies, in foundations, in social enterprises, in NGOs and nonprofits, in social movements, in impact investment firms, in aid contractors, in think tanks, in grassroots or community-based organizations, in corporate social responsibility programs, in advocacy organizations, in fair trade businesses…you get the picture.
I’m inviting all of us – who are able and willing – to share our survivor stories. Let’s use this #MeToo moment is time to reveal the insidiousness of cover-ups, the distrust created, the trivialization whenever survivors speak out in our sector.
I am not asking us to do this so that we can immediately come up with a strategy, and then implement a plan – something which our sector constantly requires of its members. (Even on the Facebook post that started this idea, in what was a conversation among 12 women, someone jumped in to man-splain the solution, suggesting what we should do about this problem.)
I am asking us to share our stories because as #MeToo found Tarana Burke describes,
“Hearing ‘me too’ can change the trajectory of the healing process.”
The doing is secondary. Women know that first we must heal, gather the strength (most often from each other), and then create the solidarity to determine and take the next action.
This is our space, here on this page, to write and share our stories – to demonstrate just how widespread the experience of sexual abuse is in our sector, and to create the opportunity for us to have the experience of #MeToo.
#MeToo requires compassion, staying with what’s painful, deep listening. So if you share your story or if you don’t, please don’t leave the comment section below without offering your support to those speaking out. And if you need a little courage, check out my previous post, 7 things every woman needs to speak truth to power.
If you would like to offer your story anonymously, we honor that. We work and pray for a day when our anonymity is no longer necessary. In the name and email fields of the comment section below, simply use:
If you want to report the abuse in other higher-profile platforms, we support that too. Check out reporttheabuse.org or the Humanitarian Women’s Network or Buzzfeed as good places to start. We celebrate the examples of brave people like Megan Nobert and Sarah Pierce and work and pray for a day when any of our “coming out” as survivors is no longer necessary.
It’s time for the “entitled, privileged men” in our sector (along with many other sectors) to stop any and all behavior that promotes rape culture – from slut shaming and victim blaming to the “little” jokes and minimizations to unequal pay to cat-calling to stalking to groping to sexual coercion to violence.
First, let’s galvanize ourselves by sharing our stories with each other. To all of you, I say:
*To learn more about the origins and the work of the #MeToo movement, click here.
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After speaking for a while at an out of town fundraiser with the head of a global initiative about possible job opportunities, we conversed about our partners, our kids, where I’d be willing to move or not with my family for a job, etc. I thought things were going great! Until they weren’t. He propositioned me to go back to his hotel, have a little fun, etc. I was in shock. Fortunately, I could safely decline. Called my boss the next morning (on a Saturday) I was so disgusted. Couldn’t figure out what I had done to give him the wrong idea. She said that I had done nothing, and that sadly it’s not that uncommon the global development space (which was at the time new to me).
Thank you for your courage Alison. Mad love for the first brave soul. You indeed had done nothing, and I’m glad you got the support you deserved from your boss. Alas, more work to be done on that front for sure.
Here’s my story: I was traveling back from a donor meeting with a senior staff member. He was drinking a lot. The other senior staff member with us chose to take a different flight 30mins later for the same flight route. On the flight his drinking continued, he asked me about my sexual preferences and sexual history. After we landed he tried to kiss me. I backed off. This conduct was not unique. It was well known in the organization. Male staff told me that they “just tried to stay out of his way”. I reported the conduct to HR as I handed in my resignation some weeks later. An investigation was carried out and I believe he was banned from traveling alone with girls. He’s still working at a senior level in the aid sector.
Kudos to you Fiona for reporting. Shame on him and shame on that organization for only banning him from “traveling alone with ‘girls’.” I’m thinking now about how we get organizations’ HR departments to “zero tolerance.” Surely, if we can have zero tolerance policies for driving under the influence of alcohol or bullying in a school, we can use it to rid our sector of these dangerous, lecherous repeat offenders.
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I responded here: https://medium.com/@laurawmcd/i-wanted-to-respond-to-this-and-the-call-to-action-on-the-women-in-aid-site-with-a-story-from-the-31019e4d5d5a
My first job at a major development organization, age 25, I had a 50+ yo boss who would surround himself with young female professionals as subordinates. He would make lewd jokes, comment on the way we dressed, etc. Textbook sexual harassment behavior that was swept aside as “cultural” (he was from Latin America). I had even gathered up the courage (I don’t know how) to come to his office to tell him that some of his jokes were making me uncomfortable. Not that I had to do that. On repeated missions to a far-off locale, he would amp up his jokes, suggest he would come out to the hotel swimming pool to see me in my swimsuit, etc. One time that I felt sick, he even suggested we’d head to his hotel room as he knew of a good method to “make the fever go away”. I reported him and the guilt and isolation from colleagues was horrendous. I eventually left the organization and had to insist, and remind the office in charge of the investigation several times over the course of 2 years that I wanted to be notified when the investigation would be complete. Not to know the outcome (which I wasn’t entitled to), but to know there had been due process. It taught me a lot about institutional sexism, the many hardships that come with being the one to talk, the mental anguish, etc. It’s not just the abuse. It’s becoming a “victim” the moment you speak out, it’s seeing your everyday life impacted by someone else’s crappy behavior and bad decisions, it’s feeling you’re being punished for doing something good, it’s doubting yourself, etc. I’m still proud I spoke out but I can’t imagine how much worst it would have been had the abuse reached farther, or had my environment been less conducive to reporting. Collectively, as colleagues, friends, bosses, family members, we all have to do better to make people feel safe.
Thank you for sharing your story and sorry you went through this.
I’m so sorry he did this to you and others, and I’m so glad you gathered the courage throughout this ordeal and kept the pressure on – we are proud of you. You describe so well what women who do decide to report (or not) go through, and the guilt and isolation we face only serves to preserve the power structures. I’m sure your bravery will ring in the ears of others going through the same thing. We have to do better indeed.
I ran into a male colleague at a professional conference in East Africa. He asked if I was taking some time to travel after the trip, and I mentioned I was spending a few days in Zanzibar. He asked if I brought my bikini to jump around on the beach. When I laughed it off, he told me he was sorry he was going to miss that. No doubt he would not have initiated the conversation if I were a man
Thanks for speaking up and out Kathleen. We are with you. These are not isolated incidents – it is systematic. The normalization and degradation that occur in these so-called “innocuous” incidents all add up to…our silence. Every truth that is revealed – big or small – helps get us to a collective “no more”!
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Thank you for creating this space for women to share their stories and pushing this conversation forward.
I’ve read your recent postings and you raise some really important points, things I’ve been tackling with the last few weeks. While I respect what you are saying and believe that speaking out and sharing our stories is incredibly valuable, I think we are not rushing for a solution–we are badly overdue for a solution. This is something urgent. We have all been putting up with this abuse and trauma for far too long. Women in aid already know the issue and we’ve been sharing our stories for decades. We’ve called out the systemic harassment and abuse in our industry. We’ve conducted surveys and written reports on the issue. We know it is a problem. We know the extent of the issue. We know that the policies are not in place to protect us and most importantly. And while I fully agree with your point that we shouldn’t have to be the ones to fix this wrong done to us, I think we all know that our organisations are not just going to wake up one morning and realize this is an issue no matter how many of us share our stories. Senior management is at best out of touch with what is going on in their organisations and at worse actively engaged in silencing those who speak out.
We are past the point where more survivor stories are necessary to build solidarity. I am not in any way suggesting that there is not value or strength to be gained in sharing your story and I think sharing our stories-creating a safe community where we can share our stories and listen to others-is a key part of healing but it cannot take place in isolation. We need to stop asking survivors to share their stories without actually delivering any change. I previously chose to share my story in the hopes it would bring change in the policy. It hasn’t yet. And that is incredibly painful and soul killing-learning that your pain alone isn’t enough to warrant change, that you alone aren’t valued enough, that 20 people’s pain, a hundred people’s pain is not enough to get organisations and donors and government agencies to listen to us. I don’t think there is a magic number where people will stand up and say let’s do something unless we demand it. So yes we should keep talking and keep sharing but that is for us and for our healing. At the same time, if we want change we need to shout for it, demand it, And that time is well overdue.
I respect that everyone finds healing in their own unique way, at their own unique pace but I am tired and I want action. I’m never going to really heal while I am still working in an environment that is constantly re-traumatizing me and telling me that my safety and well being is not respected.
We need to make it clear that we will not back down. That we, the female majority, will not tolerate this anymore. That we will report and escalate incidents. If our organisations don’t respond we will go to the press and social media. Too many of us for far too long have shared our stories and nothing has happened. We need to come up with a plan, with next steps. The time to do this is now, is a year ago, five years ago, a decade ago, a lifetime ago.
Thank you for this honest reflection. My intention in writing this was to let women know that their experiences are valid, and bring more people into the fold. Ultimately, I do think when a person is “seen” and witnessed by another’s whole heart, this is a radical way to facilitate change. Maybe this is a fool’s errand to try to do online. And yet, with this segmented and global sector, where else?
I completely respect and honor that this must seem wildly inadequate for the advocates that have been talking about this in the aid industry for eons. What I have learned by supporting other movements around the world is that it is indeed often challenging to integrate folks “new to the party,” or newcomers/late starters to an issue. And yet, the aid industry in general would do well to recognize that this is, in fact, how change occurs – with people who have a relentless commitment to a shared vision for the future and are building an ever expanding collective of people working towards it.
So…as in many movements, we want the same thing, and yet there are differing ideas, strategies, and tactics for how to get there. From my point of view, there will always need to be a welcoming and affirming place for people who are finding the courage to tell their stories for the first time and heal. This can help restore people’s strength to take next steps. I don’t presume that this is the “right” platform for that. The beauty of people building towards collective action is that there are different roles to play.
The strength and fierceness required to hold the line, to report and escalate as you suggest, requires our solidarity with each other and a generosity to welcome and enfold new supporters. More than sharing our stories, my deepest hope for this page and these discussions is that a base of concerned people is forming – and that is through building our relationships with each other that we can determine what the next steps should be.
Now I agree, asking people to act is the next phase. So let’s be propositional, with concrete suggestions on how to demonstrate:
– the female majority will not tolerate abuse,
– we will not back down, and
– we will report and escalate.
What form does this now take? Is it a listserve? Is it a new reporting mechanism?
Naming and shaming has its purpose. I want to also think about concrete actions for men to help us deal with these incidents – so we can redefine safety with them, hold people accountable, and attend to our collective well-being.
Here’s what I want to see. I want to see men holding other men accountable for their behavior. I want men to circle the offender and share with him the impact of his behavior. I want this circle of men to take with them requests from the victims of how they want the harm to be repaired. I need the wisdom of the readers of this blog to offer – how do we get there?
In one job in an INGO, I had a manager who said things like: “I put a woman on my management team, and now look at the trouble I get”. Another time, when I was acting up for someone else, he said “oh look, so-and-so now has boobs.” There were frequent demeaning comments that made me feel like I was somehow inferior because I was a woman, and that having opinions wasn’t appropriate unless you were a man. I left the job after 18 months, and this was certainly a factor. I complained about the issue in my exit letter, rather than doing so at the time — which I regret. The CEO wrote me a letter after I left and said “how do you want to take this forward.” I was exhausted and just wanted to get away. He shouldn’t have left it on my shoulders. The machismo culture is rampant and its going to take a giant leap for them to realise that even casual sexism is demoralising and inappropriate, and is part of what’s adding to a systemic lack of good women in senior levels.
Thank you for sharing your experience Deborah. How these continual experience add up to a lack of women in senior leadership is a connection more people need to recognize. Oh no! I just had an opinion. Lol.