Aid workers are sent to do good, so why would they rape children? And if there were only one or two “bad apples”, surely the safeguarding systems of the industry would put children first and jail the perpetrators?
Unfortunately, as much as we would hope, in the foreign aid sector, this is not the case. There is an epidemic of abuse in the aid industry, like the Catholic church before it, that must be fixed.
The first step in tackling the issue, is for everyone who has played a part – including you, the reader, and me, the writer – for we have provided funds with our donations and taxes, to pay attention; we have the power to change things for the better.
Awareness is another step in fixing the problem, and the best way to get the facts is to read parliament’s International Development Committee report of the massive scale of child rape and sexual abuse by UN and aid agencies.
The report makes it clear that child rape and adult sexual abuse in the foreign aid sector is not a matter of a few “rotten eggs”. The whole system has protected child rapists and abusers, aid organisations have not done enough to stop the endemic issues, and trustees and CEOs have been accused of being “complacent verging on complicit”. In fact, as the report says, trustees and CEOs of agencies put their reputations and fundraising before the welfare of child victims of rape.
Further, bureaucrats at the Department For International Development (DFID), and until recently, secretaries of state for international development on both sides of politics, have known about these abuses, and have taken no meaningful action.
But not all have been silent.
The precursor to the National Crime Agency (NCA) has been warning since 1999 – nearly 20 years – that there is a problem with paedophiles in the aid industry on “the scale of international sex tourism”, but almost no one listened to them.
To help fix the problem, I co-founded Hear Their Cries, a Swiss organisation set up to fight for the victims of sex abuse in aid. That a not-for-profit was set up to help protect victims from an industry that was supposed to help people in the first place, tells you all you need to know about issues with unregulated foreign aid.
To ensure our independence, we have been totally self-funded by private donors, and take no money from government – because historically, government involvement has been part of the problem.
In lobbying across three continents over nearly a decade, it was first Priti Patel and then Penny Mordaunt who have been the only government ministers to have taken this both seriously and personally. So entrenched is the protection regime that Patel, as she wrote in her column for The Telegraph, faced push-back from DFID mandarins when she started to raise the issue. Can you imagine that? Bureaucrats in our government telling a minister not to fight for the protection of child rape victims?
But because more ministers are taking the issue seriously, there are opportunities to tackle the abuse head on, and we can start by taking four vital steps.
Firstly, we need to give resources, power and authority to the NCA so the extraterritorial laws on child sex offences apply to the aid industry, wherein it is unlawful for a British national or resident to have sex with a child anywhere in the world.
I have met with the NCA and I know they take this issue seriously. But we need to ensure that the politicians put sufficient importance on the issue so that the NCA gets whatever resources and changes in the law it needs. It is time we saw people go to jail.
Second, the UK needs to follow Australia’s lead and make the failure to report a child abuse event a crime – even when it happens overseas. Charities are guardians of public funds, so they should be held to the same standards as when their misconduct pertains to the use of government funds.
Any CEO and Trustee that does not report, and does not undertake all reasonable action to prevent abuse, should face criminal sanction themselves. If that sounds harsh, remember, this is, and has been a well-known problem in the industry for decades. Drastic action is needed.
Third, we need to get to grips with the scale of the issues at hand. The report acknowledges that there has been a huge amount of abuse, and most victims of it do not report the crime. Last year, Hear Their Cries put out an estimate of 60,000 victims over the last ten years. At the time, the organisation was accused of exaggerating the problem, but following the parliamentary report, we now know that estimate is likely to be a massive underestimation.
In order to figure out the real scale, charities and the DFID should fund an academically defensible study into the size of the crime so that we can get a better understanding of how many victims remain silent, and whose voices are never, but should be, heard.
Fourth, it is time for celebrity ambassadors like Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson to suspend their ambassador roles until we are confident that the aid industry lives up to the standards of #MeToo and #TimesUp.
Hear Their Cries has been calling for this since March. It is time we all stood up. You, me, police, politicians, celebrities and media. We can stop this. We must stop this.
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