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In 2011, a few Oxfam staff were accused of sexual exploitation and abuse in Haiti during the earthquake response. We’re also aware of allegations of staff in 2006 in Chad using sex workers, in South Sudan and elsewhere.
We are deeply shocked and dismayed by these revelations. We share with you the profound revulsion at this unacceptable behavior of a few privileged people who had the opportunity to serve Oxfam and were abusing the very people they were meant to protect.
They also abused the trust of our supporters and the thousands of dedicated Oxfam staff and volunteers working around the world to end poverty and injustice. This is an appalling mark against the high values we set for ourselves at Oxfam. Advancing women’s rights in situations of high vulnerability especially in crises is central to what we do.
Watch the response of Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima on the Haiti and Chad reports:
That the events took place several years ago and involved a small number of staff is no cause for complacency. Moreover, although Oxfam has not and would not provide a positive reference for any of those who were dismissed or who resigned as a result of the Haiti case, we are appalled that individuals found guilty of sexual misconduct in Haiti were employed by other aid agencies.
While we strongly refute allegations of a cover-up it is clear that mistakes were made in the handling of these cases. If the stronger policies and practices that we have in place now were in place then, the situation would no doubt have been handled very differently.
Oxfam’s investigation in Haiti, 2011
In 2011 we became aware of allegations in Haiti and immediately launched an internal investigation. Our primary aim was to root out and take action against those involved and we publicly announced, including to media, both the investigation and the action we took as a result. The misconduct charges related to a number of offenses including bullying, harassment, intimidation and failure to protect staff as well as sexual misconduct.
Four members of staff were dismissed and three, including the country director, resigned. Allegations that underage girls may have been involved were not proven. The investigation also pointed out that there was no misuse of the money raised in response to the Haiti 2010 earthquake.
It is not our policy to allow people to resign when they are under investigation but there is very little we can do to stop it. One member of staff left Haiti at the time of the investigation and did not return. The country director was permitted to resign on the basis that he fully cooperated with and supported the wider investigation. We took this decision to identify all the men involved and stop the abuse happening as quickly as possible.
We did consider at the time reporting the matter to the Haiti authorities but we understand the legal advice, was that given the nature of the allegations, and the continued upheaval and chaos after the earthquake, it was extremely unlikely any action would be taken. This was a mistake. It wasn’t for Oxfam to decide whether a crime had been committed or not.
Our commitment to real and deep change
At this point, we must acknowledge that looking back, our response in 2011 would not pass the standards we have today. We should have been more transparent with the authorities and with the public, including referencing sexual misconduct in our communications.
After the investigation, we introduced a range of measures to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct from happening in the first place and to improve how allegations are handled. We established a dedicated Safeguarding Team and a confidential 'whistleblowing' hotline as part of a best practice package to ensure we protect all our staff, volunteers, partners, and community members.
Our updated Code of Conduct, ratified in October 2017 by the Oxfam Executive Board, now explicitly forbids behavior such as seen during the Haiti case. We have now in place a Global Safeguarding Taskforce to guide on prevention of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse across Oxfam.
We have also published our 2011 internal investigation into the case and the names of the men involved have already been shared with the authorities in Haiti and with relevant state bodies in their countries of origin.
However, that’s not to say we are where we should be. We must do much more and act with greater urgency.
As members of this organization, we are deeply hurt by these abuses and are committed to real and deep change in the way we handle accusations and cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse. Our priority is to stand with the women and girls who were exploited and to ensure that sexual misconduct is rooted out of our organization.
We are taking action
While we have made many changes in response to the Haiti case, it is clear we still have not yet done enough to change our own culture and to create the strongest possible policies to protect people we work with globally. We are doing that now.
We are currently undertaking a range of actions that have been agreed by Oxfam’s leadership, to ensure an urgent, comprehensive and accountable response across the Oxfam confederation.
Our objective is to bring about the necessary changes to our policy, practice and culture to stamp out exploitation, abuse and harassment in all parts of our confederation, protecting those we work with and ensuring justice for survivors of abuse. We are also calling on anyone who experienced, or knows of, abuse involving Oxfam staff to come forward using our confidential hotline.
Our action plan includes:
- The creation of an independent commission led by women’s rights and human rights experts who will conduct a review of Oxfam’s practices, operations and culture, including an audit of the handling of past cases.
- The immediate creation of a new global database of accredited referees designed to end the use of forged, dishonest or unreliable references for past or current Oxfam staff.
- We are doubling the number of staff working on safeguarding and tripling the budget for this work to just over $1 million.
As members of this organization, we are committed to our work and to Oxfam’s values. We hope we can rebuild your trust. You, our supporters know, as we do, that the actions of a few do not represent all that Oxfam stands for.