|Canada’s international development community is visibly and vocally committed to the economic and social empowerment of disadvantaged women around the world, so the recent revelations about grievous sexual misconduct by Oxfam GB staff in Haiti came as a cold, hard, slap in the face. It is an ugly story. Following the earthquake that devastated what was already the poorest country in the western hemisphere, humanitarian workers were found to have sexually exploited desperate, vulnerable women.
Today is International Women’s Day – traditionally a time when Veterinarians without Borders/Vétérinaires sans frontières and other development organizations celebrate the accomplishments of women and the work we do empowering women and girls around the world. But this year, International Women’s Day is also a good time to step back and take a hard, honest look at our own practices and procedures.
We are proud of the work we have done improving the lives of women around the world, and we are equally proud of our staff and volunteers who have performed their duties with respect and compassion. But we also need to acknowledge that there are risks associated with our work. At VWB/VSF there are interviews, background checks and thorough briefings before anyone heads overseas on our behalf. But in spite of those efforts, there remains a great deal of faith involved in sending people to work in remote communities, far from the gaze of VWB/VSF supervision. We trust them to behave honourably, but that does not spare us from taking every precaution to reduce the risk.
One starting point might be to more openly acknowledge the huge power imbalance that is part and parcel of development or humanitarian relationships. In the development community we love to talk about creating equal partnerships, but the simple truth is that at the personal level, relationships are far from equal. A foreign advisor’s expertise is rarely questioned. Most volunteers are not wealthy by Canadian standards, yet they represent great wealth within the poor communities where they work. The result is a level of privilege that needs to be understood and managed. For most, carrying that level of privilege is an embarrassment and burden, and people go to great lengths to reduce, and sometimes to deny their own privilege. Yet even for people with the best of intentions, over time a sense entitlement can take hold.
Through the briefing process, we pledge to be more forceful in helping volunteers and staff understand the burden of privilege that they carry. If privilege is constantly top of mind, volunteers or staff working overseas will be better equipped to monitor and regulate their own behaviour. It is also important that our partners are empowered to supervise and monitor the volunteers in their midst, and that they are prepared to be honest with us should problems arise.
The Canadian Council for International Co-operation has recently announced an initiative to examine the issue of prevention and management of sexual misconduct in our sector, and VWB/VSF will engage with that effort and take its findings and recommendations to heart. Our community of volunteer-sending organizations are already tackling this issue through regular discussion forums and information sharing, and we participate in that as well. And, we pledge to refine our reporting and supervision practices to prevent abuse, and also to monitor and investigate any reports of wrongdoings and to take appropriate action to address any situation that may arise.
At VWB/VSF we have been blessed with wonderful volunteers, and we continue to trust in their ability to conduct themselves appropriately when working on our behalf. But our partners have also placed their trust in us that women and girls will not be put at risk. That risk may be very low, but it is our duty to take it seriously, and to take every precaution to prevent the exploitation of women and girls on our watch.