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Displaced women in the Protection of Civilians (PoC) in Bentiu, South Sudan, on February 16, 2016. (ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Report the Abuse

Why one woman is hell-bent on combating sexual violence among aid workers

By Amanda Sperber on August 23, 2016

While working on a U.N. base in South Sudan in 2015, Megan Nobert was allegedly drugged and raped by a colleague.  She knows she had dinner and drinks with aid workers, and went to the tiny bar on site. She knows she had a glass of red wine. She remembers that she danced. The next thing she knows is that when she woke up, she could feel — physically —  that she had been violated.

“Talking about the fact that this is a problem in the humanitarian community is the first way to begin breaking down the barriers that prevent us from talking about our experiences,” she wrote of the ordeal, on her newly launched website. “It is also the first way to start making changes in the humanitarian community to ensure that support is available to those who experience sexual violence and their perpetrators do not escape with impunity.”

Nobert is an international human rights lawyer, and had gathered evidence against war criminals in Lebanon and Tanzania before she moved to South Sudan in 2014, the year after a civil war broke out that rendered hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

She went to the world’s youngest country to help, and was placed in the Protection of Civilians (POC) camp, outside seething Bentiu town in oil-rich Unity State, where a pocket of 120,000 sick, starving and traumatized South Sudanese were being served by around 160 humanitarian workers.

But after the attack, Nobert’s most basic physical and mental needs went unmet, she said. She could barely function. She had no support getting to a doctor, getting the necessary tests or getting out of Bentiu and down to Juba, South Sudan’s capital. Then, the U.N. did nothing to investigate or hold the perpetrator accountable. He was quietly encouraged to leave his position with pay. No fuss. The maddening bureaucratic labyrinth that deepened her suffering and yielded no justice spurred the 29-year-old Canadian to found Report the Abuse, the first organization that investigates sexual violence against and within the humanitarian community, and supports survivors.

Megan Nobert
Megan Nobert … breaking down barriers.

After surveying 291 humanitarian workers and 92 organizations from across the world, Report the Abuse published its first report on Friday. The only data of its kind, the findings are damning: Sexual violence is common. Sixty-six percent of the survey participants experienced harassment or assault, and 85 percent know someone who said they had. More than half said the perpetrator was a colleague.

NGOs and the U.N. appear to lack basic structures to address their staff’s needs. Sixteen percent of the organizations that Nobert researched had policies and procedures in place to address sexual assault among employees, and only 17 percent of survey participants felt their complaints were adequately addressed when they reported sexual harassment and violence.  “I hope the fact that only 16 percent of organizations having policies will be shocking,” Nobert told Women in the World. “I hope people will wake up and see this is a gap. “

Ninety-seven percent of the survey responders are expatriate staff. Access to technology and language are some of the barriers that prohibit national staff — aid workers operating in their own countries — to respond. National staff are the most vulnerable to rape and harassment, and Report the Abuse is going to focus on making the survey more accessible to this group in the coming months.

“The issue of humanitarian workers being subjected to sexual violence and abuse is not a new one and in most cases is not being adequately responded to, either by the U.N. or major international non-governmental organizations,” wrote Antonia Mulvey in an email to Women in the World. Mulvey is the Founder and Executive Director of Legal Action Worldwide, a human rights law firm that investigates abuses in the midst of conflict. “Legal Action Worldwide has been approached by numerous humanitarian workers who have been subjected to sexual violence by fellow colleagues within the U.N. or international NGOs who have been further traumatized after reporting to their organization, ignored and in some cases they have had their contracts not renewed for reporting the violence or abuse.”

The way Nobert sees it, sexual violence is going to happen — she cites the statistic that one in three women around the world will experience some type of physical or sexual abuse. So instead of dismissing it, organizations should treat sexual violence like any other safety or security protocol. “If we can do that [have such procedures] for riots or insurrection, why can’t we do that for sexual violence?” She sighs with frustration. “When are we going to stop hoping it will go away?”

Indeed, Nobert’s case, and the U.N.’s inaction, is anything but unique: Thousands upon thousands of South Sudanese women, children and toddlers have been violently raped, tortured and abducted since the bloody, chaotic civil war. The U.N. has been under fire for ignoring and appeasing systematic, government-sponsored violence against women and girls. Last week the Associated Press reported that U.N. peacekeepers stood by as South Sudanese government troops beat, attacked and gang-raped foreign staff at a popular hotel compound in Juba, the capital.

When Nobert was allegedly raped, Nonviolent Peaceforce, her former employer in South Sudan, had no plan to specifically address sexual assault. Over email, Tiffany Easthom, the Executive Director of the Organization, said they have since adapted a protocol, and are training middle and senior management in direct response to survivors. Report the Abuse is compiling a list of organizations who have a well-rounded plan to display on the site. “My best case scenario is five years down the road you can look at the website and go to an interview [at an aid organization] and ask why they aren’t on the list,” Nobert said.

The excuse that organizations offer for not having a process to manage rape amongst the humanitarian community is often fiscal. Nobert sees that as a cop-out : “I think it’s a lack of drive and impetus,” she said. In the report she points out, “It should not take millions of donor dollars to implement a regimen to ensure that sexual violence in our workplaces is first prevented and, when it does happen, that there are established and appropriate survivor-centered policies and procedures to respond to the situation.”

Report the Abuse found that the most sexual assault cases against and amongst aid workers happens in Kenya, South Sudan and Somalia. This data may be slightly skewed, because Nobert reported her experience in South Sudan, making other regional colleagues more likely to come forward, she speculated. Or it could mean the same assailants circle these spots. The wars in South Sudan and Somalia receive lesser coverage than other conflicts and the high rate of domestic abuse in Kenya is also underreported . “These are areas we don’t talk about,” Nobert commented, “and where sexual violence is very high.”

Nobert is determined that these places no longer go forgotten. She knows she’s embarking on a life-time project: “We’re here to stay,” she said with determination. “I’m here to stay.”