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Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • In 2002 UNHCR and Save the Children released a report on a survey they conducted in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, in which they interviewed 1500 children and adults (IDPs and refugees) to determine the scope of sexual violence and exploitation of children. During the investigation they discovered extensive exploitation and abuse:
  • The prime exploiters included agency workers from local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations (UN) agencies – those entrusted to protect and assist.
  • The implicated agency workers were using humanitarian assistance and services (medication, food, plastic sheeting, education, skills training, school supplies and building materials) in exchange for sex with girls under 18 and women.
  • Sixty-seven individuals from a range of agencies were implicated.
  • These grave allegations led to the establishment, in March 2002, of an Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Protection from SEA in Humanitarian Crises, which developed a set of six core principles to reflect the commitment of its members to strengthening and enhancing the protection and care of women and children in situations of humanitarian crisis and conflict. These principles were the first standards ever developed on the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN, INGO, and NGO staff and partners.  IASC members (UN, INGOs and other key humanitarian actors) are required to incorporate these principles into agency codes of conduct and staff rules and regulations governing the individual behaviour of humanitarian workers.  Many INGOs were relatively quick to take steps through their individual agencies, as well as collectively through initiatives such as the Humanitarian Accountability Project, to develop and enforce codes of conduct and implement reporting and investigations systems.
  • The UN’s response to the IASC’s recommendations and six core principles on SEA came in the form of the Secretary General’s Bulletin (SGB) entitled Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (ST/SGB/2003/13). It provides definitions for key terms and defines the behaviour of UN staff and related personnel in relation to SEA. It notes that SEA have always been unacceptable behaviour and prohibited conduct under the Staff Regulations and Rules. The Secretary-General’s Bulletin also applies to all partners, including NGOs, consultants, contractors, day labourers, interns, Junior Programme Officers  (JPOs), United Nations Volunteers (UNVs), etc. When the UN enters into a contract with a non-UN entity, that entity must also agree to apply these standards as part of the terms of the contract.

Sexual exploitation” means any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.

 “Sexual abuse” means the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.

Source: UN Secretary-General’s Bulletin on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) (ST/SGB/2003/13)

  • The SGB details some of the ways in which PSEA activities should be implemented, including:

Providing staff with copies of the Bulletin and informing them of its contents.

Taking appropriate action when there is reason to believe sexual exploitation and abuse and abuse has occurred.

Appointing focal points and advising the local population on how to contact them.

Handling reports of sexual exploitation and abuse confidentially.

  • The SGB clearly requires managers within UNCTs and humanitarian country teams to appoint focal points and guide them in meeting their responsibilities. Also in light of the SGB, Humanitarian Coordinators/Resident Coordinators have been tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that an in-country network on PSEA, composed of PSEA focal points, is operational and supporting the development and implementation of a country-level PSEA action plan in their respective countries.
  • In April 2005, the terms of the Secretary General’s Bulletin also became binding to all uniformed personnel serving with the UN, including civilian police and military observers.  The U.N. Secretary-General announced a Zero Tolerance Policy and Awareness Campaign against SEA for DPKO.   This included the development and implementation of a Code of Conduct to increase peacekeeper accountability, as well as the accountability of leadership for addressing SEA across peacekeeping missions. Within DPKO the Conduct and Discipline Unit is the main body tasked with protection against SEA through a three-tiered strategy of improved prevention, enforcement, and remedial action. There are three main types of programming to protect against SEA within DPKO: training of peacekeeping staff, awareness rising within the local community, and accountability measures for improved reporting.
Example: In Liberia the Campaign against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) was launched as a joint effort between the Government of Liberia and the GBV Task Force with support from UNMIL. The campaign focused on educating the public on the risks of SEA and strengthening the community-based mechanisms for monitoring and reporting. The initiative resulted in increased knowledge about the United Nations` “zero tolerance” policy on SEA at the community level, access to reporting systems, and improved understanding about what constitutes GBV and SEA.


Example: The European Union military operation in support of MONUC during the election process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Operation EUFOR RD Congo) sought to be “a role model for international peacekeeping and monitoring operations with respect to women, peace and security.” EUFOR RD Congo's explicit objectives included that there be no cases of sexual exploitation and abuse. Any such behaviour was to be specifically reported upon in the Gender Adviser's weekly reports to the Operational Commander and the Force Commander. A Soldier’s Card was distributed to all Operation EUFOR RD Congo participants, and all participants received training on its contents. As well as the troops' rules of engagement, the Soldier’s Card stated:

  • Any violation of this Soldier’s Card will be considered as serious misconduct. SEA will be investigated and may lead to disciplinary measures being taken, including suspension, immediate repatriation or summary dismissal. EUFOR personnel are obliged to report any concerns regarding SEA and abuse by a colleague through the established reporting mechanisms.
  • …Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (SEA; Sexual exploitation: Any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including profiting monetarily, socially, or politically; Sexual Abuse: Actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions) are acts of unacceptable behaviour and prohibited conduct for
  • It is strictly prohibited for all EUFOR personnel to engage in:

1)      Any act of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, or any other form of sexually humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviour.

2)      Any type of sexual activities with children (persons under 18 years of age). Mistaken belief in the age of a person is no excuse.

3)      Use of children or adults to procure sexual activities from others.

4)      Exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex with prostitutes or others.

5)      Any sexual favour in exchange of assistance provided to the beneficiaries of such assistance.

6)      Visits to brothels or places, which are declared off-limits. 

Making EUFOR RD Congo's “Zero Tolerance Policy on SEA” very clear in this manner, supported by a strong information policy and training, was seen as “probably the key” to there being no reported cases of SEA inside the Operation EUFOR RD Congo.

Source: Adapted from Bastik et al., 2007.

  • Another important development was the transfer of IASC Task Force oversight to the Executive Committees on Humanitarian Affairs and Peace and Security (ECHA/ECPS) in 2005. Then, a number of important initiatives have been launched, such as the high-level meeting in 2006 from which was issued a “statement of commitment” by the UN and NGO community on addressing SEA and, more recently, the UN resolution on assistance to victims of SEA (A/RES/62/214).  The ECHA/ECPS UN and NGO Task Force has produced a variety of resources, including training materials for senior managers and in-country focal point networks, as well as a guide for implementing the SG’s victim assistance strategy. These strategies are meant to be established in every country in which the UN operates to assist complainants and victims, regardless of agency, department or organization related with the incident, and independent of whether the actual allegations had been substantiated or dismissed through a UN administrative or a government judicial process. This assistance should include medical, legal, psychosocial, immediate material care as well as the facilitation of the pursuit of paternity and child support claims (depending on the case – for example, basic assistance like psychosocial counselling, and immediate shelter, clothing, food, or protection need not wait for the allegations to be substantiated), and excludes direct financial assistance and compensation. Paternity and child support claims are undertaken in conjunction with the relevant national government and may include DNA testing, etc. Children born as a result of SEA are also entitled to assistance.
  • The ECHA/ECPS UN and NGO Task Force has framed PSEA programming in terms of four key areas, or ‘pillars’: 
  1. Engagement with and support of local populations.  This involves:
  • Establishing common complaints mechanisms in each community where the UN, NGOs and IGOs work;
  • Educating the community about their rights;
  • Engaging the community in monitoring SEA risk;
  • Engaging the community in strategies for prevention and response;
  • Encouraging community reporting on SEA.
     2.  Prevention.  This involves:
  • Ensuring country-wide awareness raising for staff and related personnel is underway (whether collectively or by agency);
  • Creating mechanisms for addressing the risk of SEA in our programmes;
  • Developing codes of conduct with standards at least equal to those in the SGB (by agency; for the UN, the SGB already serves the purpose of a code of conduct).
     3.  Developing Response Mechanisms.  This involves:
  • Developing complaints procedures for staff and other personnel to report incidents;
  • Developing investigation procedures and capacity;
  • Ensuring disciplinary actions and sanctions;
  • Establishing and implementing a victim assistance mechanism.
     4.  Management and Coordination.  This involves:
  • Strengthening senior leadership on PSEA;
  • Addressing internal management issues (i.e. PSEA responsibilities in focal points’ ToRs; SGB standards in contractual arrangements; PSEA in performance management);
  • Establishing and coordinating PSEA networks
  • Despite on-going efforts, actual statistics on SEA are very difficult to obtain, not only because few systems are in place to receive complaints and record incidents, but also because under-reporting is a significant problem around the world with any type of sexual violence, including SEA. Each year, the UN Secretary-General publishes a “Special Measures” report on the number of SEA allegations, to which organizations are obliged to submit statistics.  This report therefore serves as one method for obtaining a statistical overview of the problem.
  • For additional information:

The UN Office of InternalOversight Services (OIOS) also provides information about investigations they have undertaken on SEA.  Available in English.

A 2008 report published by Save the Children UK, entitled “No One to Turn To,” documents the ongoing problem of under-reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse.

Another 2008 report, “To Complain or Not to Complain published by the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, highlights the fact that beneficiaries are often reluctant to complain because systems are not in place to receive complaints and/or ensure safe and confidential reporting.

In 2010, the IASC publisheda “Global Review of Protection of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse from UN, NGO, IOM and IFRC personnel.

  • Protection from sexual exploitation and abuse is a responsibility of all humanitarian and peacekeeping actors working in conflict-affected settings.  It is critical that individuals familiarize themselves with the regulations within their own agencies and their funding agencies, the standards promoted in the SG’s Bulletin, as well as the tools and resources that are available at the ECHA/ECPS UN and NGO Task Force tools repository.
  • All VAWG programmers should be sensitive to some of the challenges VAWG service providers may face if they are assigned the responsibility of acting as PSEA focal points in their agencies.  The SGB requires mandatory reporting of suspected incidents of SEA.  And yet, the fundamental guiding principles of VAWG programmes—confidentiality and the right of the survivors to choose how she would like to address an incident of VAWG—are essentially contrary to mandated reporting.  Therefore, it may be useful for service-delivery agencies to develop special provisions to address this contradiction, such as informing VAWG survivors of the mandate to report on SEA before soliciting any case information during an interview.


Additional Tools

The ECHA/ECPS UN and NGO Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse is the forum responsible for promoting global policy and guidance on PSEA for humanitarian actors.  To this end, the task force has developed a PSEA tools repository of guidelines, tools, training materials, and other resources developed by the Task Force as well as other partners.  Available in English.

PSEA activities within DPKO’s Conduct and Discipline Unit.  Available in English.

For a comprehensive strategy issued by the UN on supporting victims of SEA, see United Nations General Assembly. 2008. United Nations Comprehensive Strategy on Assistance and Support to Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by United Nations Staff and Related Personnel, (A/RES/62/214).  Available in English.

For INGO Guidelines on complaint mechanisms and response, see ICVA’s Building Safer Organizations Project. Available in English.

For training tools for PSEA focal points and senior managers, see: