Oxfam and Weinstein effect among humanitarians

Oxfam and Weinstein effect among humanitarians

By Lori Handrahan | 19 February, 2018
Activists protesting against sexual harassment at the workplace.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent #MeToo revolution is rattling institutions and outing predatory men in various professions.  In the humanitarian aid sector Oxfam is in the #AidToo spotlight after an internal report was leaked to the press that detailed how Oxfam provided “a phased and dignified exit” for Roland van Hauwermeiren, Oxfam’s Haiti Country Director in Haiti who was sexually abusing and exploiting vulnerable women, and perhaps children, in the beneficiary population he was there to serve.

In secondary and higher education in America this is called “passing the trash.” It is a practice almost exclusively reserved for white men in leadership positions. Unless one has worked within the humanitarian sector it is difficult to explain how much “trash” gets passed, how pervasive the culture of misogyny and abuse is against female employees and beneficiary populations and how much power humanitarian men enjoy. My recent experience in South Sudan with CARE USA, ranked 33rd largest of all American charities, illustrates how even a small disregard for the patriarchy has severe results.

Operating in development and emergency response, CARE takes pride in being the only humanitarian/development organisation to put “women and girls in the centre” of its mission. CARE is also part of an international federation of humanitarians dedicating their lives to alleviating suffering globally.

Eight years after I had been CARE’s Senior Gender Advisor, I was re-hired as a short-term consultant in South Sudan on a gender-based violence (GBV) programme. Pleased to be back in the “CARE family” I reconnected with former colleagues and jumped into the challenging work. After six-weeks of long days in a brutally insecure environment, I failed to appease the ever-present patriarchal diktat. I was terminated and on a plane home within 48 hours of that misstep.

CARE’s security expert, an older white man, is a retired military veteran who had been in the military since before the 1990 Gulf War. One of the first things, let’s call him Bob, said to me was he was the most powerful person in the office. If he didn’t like someone he could “put them on a plane out of there.” He recounted how a female staffer, from a neighbouring African country, had talked on the phone with her husband during an hour-long car ride. In other words, she was not paying attention to him. He “made sure” she was banned from returning to CARE South Sudan.

Bob was warning me. I needed to stay on his “good side” if I wanted to accomplish the work on gender discrimination and abuse I had been hired to do. Staying on the “good side” of patriarchy involves a gamut of behaviours from listening intently and saying things like “Aren’t you brave. Tell me more—you are so interesting” to feeling forced to provide “sexual favours” all the way to staying silent about brutal sexual assaults and other crimes men commit.
Most men have no idea how exhausting it is for women to constantly do the patriarchal-dance in addition to the real work we are hired to do. It is always double duty for which we are never paid extra and punished for if we attempt to avoid. The moment I met Bob, I was calculating the patriarchal spectrum of abuse and what I needed to do to avoid the worst of it.

My work included travel outside Juba, the capital of South Sudan. One trip was to a small town called Torit surrounded by rebel forces. Bob decided to go with me for a “bit of vacation” as he called it. Upon arrival, I learned Bob and I would be staying in an un-secured hotel instead of the secured CARE compound with the other staff. I wasn’t comfortable but said nothing, knowing if I requested to remain on the compound I would be challenging Bob’s ego and he would react badly. The first night I stayed at the hotel.

The only internet access was in the lobby bar which soon filled up with men. Trying to meet a deadline, after a long day of work and travel, I found myself the only woman surrounded by men drinking—it is never a good idea, particularly in a war-zone like South Sudan. I went back to my room, unable to meet my work deadlines.

When Bob and I were picked up the next morning, the CARE driver told us, holding back tears, that his best friend, a driver for the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), had been targeted in his home and shot dead during the night. South Sudan has one of the highest rates of humanitarian killings. This, however, was new. Humanitarians had not yet been pursued into their homes. It was a disturbing day for the small community. The FAO driver was well-known and beloved. CARE staff were shattered. The FAO driver had been close to many in the CARE family and was in our office the day he was murdered.

Bob decided to take a tour of some remote location that day. The dirt roads were in bad shape after heavy rains. Despite the targeting killing of a humanitarian that night and the road conditions, Bob and the field director, went out for a drive in the bush. CARE staff told me we needed to end our work early and be in the office at 4:00 for a briefing by Bob, our security expert, on the security situation after the murder. We waited in the office but Bob and the field director were still out in the bush. Near curfew they had not returned and were not answering their phones. It was getting dark.

People were worried. I contacted CARE Juba to inform them of the situation. After dark, Bob, and the staff he took with him, finally arrived at the compound. They had gotten stuck in the mud. Bob bounded out of the jeep and said to me, “Let’s go to the hotel.” I said I preferred to stay on the compound. I needed internet access, was on a deadline and wasn’t comfortable in the hotel after the murder. Bob puffed up like a rooster ready to fight.
He declared if I did not go back to the hotel with him I would “be on a plane out of there first thing in the morning.”

Weary with exhaustion, I said fine. I was too tired and too senior in my years of experience to care at that moment about the first rule of patriarchy: never thwart a man’s position of power. Never show, publicly, that a man has no control over you. Instead of saying meekly, “Yes of course” in front of the South Sudan staff I said, “Fine. No problem. I’ll get on a plane tomorrowbut tonight I am staying on the compound.” Bob then ordered me, as if I was under his military command, to follow him to the office of field director where he repeated I would be on the first plane in the morning if I didn’t return to the hotel with him. I again said, “Fine by me.”

That night armed rebels breached the military checkpoints into town and launched an attack on the village. There was a serious fire-fight. People lost their lives. The next morning I was on a plane back to Juba. CARE’s Country Director in Juba then informed me, after six weeks of being a good fit, I was suddenly “not a good fit” and terminated my contract. I was on a flight back to Washington DC within hours.

In humanitarian work, living and sleeping arrangements are complicated and dangerous aspects women constantly navigate. People ask, “Why did those women agree to meet Harvey Weinstein at his hotel? Everyone knows that couldn’t be a work-only invitation. Why did they do it?” Of course, the women had a choice. They could have refused to be part of a work meeting in a hotel and suffered the ire of a predator who could control, destroy or assist their careers. Humanitarian women endlessly navigate similar no-win decisions in situations far removed from Beverly Hills hotels.

Had I agreed to go back to the hotel with Bob, my contract would not have been terminated. I would not have been betrayed, for a second time, by an organisation I have prized being a part of and was doing good work for. But just that once I didn’t play by the rules of patriarchy—one small incident of saying no. No, I am tired of being responsible for propping up your ego simply because I am a woman and you are a man. No, I am tired of being abused, belittled, controlled because of my body parts. No. One small threat to the power of patriarchy is enough for the men in charge to hit the eject button on a female humanitarian. We are disposable.

What is the Weinstein effect in the humanitarian/aid sector? I, a humanitarian gender advisor with a doctoral degree and more than 20 years of experience, refused to go back to a hotel with a white, male military veteran. For that refusal I was humiliated, terminated and ousted.

CARE says “women and girls” are the centre of its mission because “we cannot overcome poverty until all people have equal rights and opportunities.” Somewhere in the CARE manual, and in that of every humanitarian organisation, there must be a small disclaimer that says, “except for the women who work for CARE” and very often this extends to the beneficiary population as well.

While Oxfam is currently in the spotlight, it could easily be CARE or any other humanitarian organisation because Oxfam’s attitude is similar to those across the humanitarian sector - protect the institution by protecting the predator. The humanitarian sector must completely tear down this culture of misogyny and foster a turn-around attitude where organisations understand that protecting predators and covering-up criminal behaviour does not enhance the reputation of an institution. Rather, it makes the organisation complicit in abuse, exploitation and criminal activity.

Organisations should publicly terminate, by issuing a press statement, employees like Roland van Hauwermeiren. Agencies should praise, protect and promote whistle-blowers who enforce humanitarian norms by holding the abusers among us accountable. As frustrated humanitarians (and there are many of us) continue to leak more internal reports detailing sector-wide cover-ups, and media outlets report on these, humanitarian institutions may finally learn a painful lesson; protecting abusers does not protect organisational reputations. Protecting beneficiaries and #AidToo whistle-blowers does.
Oxfam is probably the least bad offender of all the humanitarian agencies. There are many more abusers who need to be named and terminated and many female humanitarian whistleblowers who need to be brought in from the cold and re-employed. The practice of “passing the trash” must end now.

(Dr Lori Handrahan has been a humanitarian and academic for over 20 years. Her most recent book, Epidemic: America’s Trade in Child Rape, has just been released. She can be reached on her website www.LoriHandrahan.com)

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