UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore's remarks at 'Safe and Respected: Preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in the Humanitarian Sector'

26 September 2018
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore's speaks at 'Safe and Respected: Preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in the Humanitarian Sector' on 26 September 2018
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore's speaks at 'Safe and Respected: Preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in the Humanitarian Sector' on 26 September 2018

NEW YORK, 26 September 2018 - As prepared for delivery

"Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen. Let me first acknowledge my fellow panellists — Mark Lowcock, Jane Connors, Winnie Byanyima, Filippo Grandi, Bill Swing, and Jan Beagle — for their leadership on this issue.

"Let me also acknowledge Secretary of State Penny Mordaunt — who will be closing this event today — for her leadership as well, and thank the UK for co-hosting this important event.

"The world looks to the United Nations for leadership…to set an example…to exemplify the values of care, trust, integrity, respect and accountability.

"The sexual exploitation and abuse of those who depend on us for aid runs counter to all of our personal and organizational values. It is unconscionable. It is intolerable. Indeed, it’s often criminal.

"Equally intolerable is the sexual abuse and harassment of our fellow aid workers. It’s a problem that exists everywhere. From our offices in New York or Geneva…to our remote field offices…to the communities, large and small, in which UN personnel work worldwide with our many partners…to our peacekeeping missions.

"These abuses not only undermine our values as humanitarians. They erode the hard-won trust that communities, countries, partners and donors place in us each and every day.

"My contribution to today’s important debate is about changing the culture of our organizations — to build a new culture of trust.

"Before I speak about trust, I’d like to speak about its opposite: fear.

"Fear of speaking up to report abuse. Fear of retaliation and reprisals. Fear of losing a job. Fear of shame.

"Fear that silences — and allows these abuses to continue. Unreported. Unknown — except to the victim and perpetrator.

"This is the one dominant explanation we receive for what enables sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment, and abuse of authority to continue. Fear.

"And what about those who do come forward? Those for whom our stated commitment to “zero tolerance” means exactly that?

"Sometimes they’re labelled “troublemakers.” “Difficult.” “Feminist.” Even “traitor.” All for taking our words — “zero tolerance” — seriously. All for speaking the truth. All for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing.

"These brave people are not merely “whistle-blowers.” First and foremost, they are champions of “zero tolerance.” Let us all be champions of zero tolerance. As the new Champion of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, and Sexual Harassment and Abuse, I will be.

"As leaders of our organizations, we must create a more open and transparent way of addressing this issue, where people feel comfortable coming forward to report exploitation, abuse or harassment. And where they know that they will be listened to…they will be taken seriously…and an investigation will be made.

"We must replace an old, overly cautious culture with a new culture of openness — in which “speaking up” and “speaking out” is not only encouraged but something we expect of one another, throughout our organizations.

"Change is possible. We’ve all seen behaviours and attitudes change on issues such as acceptance of sexual violence and physical violence in the home.

In Somalia, UNICEF’s Communities Care programme helped dramatically drive down harmful attitudes that threaten women and girls. By working with community groups and faith-based leaders, we saw reductions in acceptance for spousal violence, for using family honour as an excuse not to report rape, and for blaming women or girls for the assaults they endure.

In our community at UNICEF, we are actively engaged in a dialogue of our own, to embed a culture of “zero tolerance” for abuse and exploitation in every UNICEF office and workplace.

The dialogue is sometimes uncomfortable. But it’s necessary.

We’ve taken a number of specific actions, including strengthened and simplified reporting mechanisms, an enhanced investigation process, and a commitment to improve screening for new hires.

We’ve also commissioned two reviews to examine our organizational culture in more detail — one on sexual harassment and investigations, and one on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse.

"And in addition, we’ve launched an Independent Task Force on Workplace Gender Discrimination and Harassment to examine this issue, and provide more recommendations on what we can do to improve our organization’s performance in this area.

"The lessons we’ve learned at UNICEF, and the changes we continue to make, are also informing my work as the newly designated Inter-agency Standing Committee champion on this issue.

"We want to encourage a culture of “speaking up” across our organizations, by establishing safe, accessible, and child-sensitive reporting mechanisms — and make them available to every person in all humanitarian situations.

"We want to make our organizations trusted again, by scaling-up support for survivors.  

"And we want to make it clear to everyone who works with or within our organizations that there is no place for sexual abuse or exploitation, by establishing prompt investigations for both child and adult survivors, and meaningful penalties for all perpetrators.       

"I will also propose working more closely with Member States to help them address SEA perpetrated by aid workers. For example, this could include the UN providing Member States with the list of SEA cases involving nationals of their countries and clarifying expectations on accountability

"We want fear and trust to trade places. We want perpetrators to feel fear and survivors to feel trust.

"This is an important moment for our organizations, and I know we will rise to the occasion.

"We will also hold each other accountable. UNICEF is currently consulting with government and civil society partners on how we invest in that accountability to protect from SEA. We work with over 9,000 partners, of whom 91 per cent are national entities. We need an ongoing dialogue on how we can uphold the highest standards, mobilize individuals and systems, and invest in our capacity to address this issue, wherever we find it.

"Those we work for deserve it. Those we work with do, too.

"And those who work within our organizations — our dedicated staff members — are calling out for change.

"Let us come together to deliver that change. A change in culture. A change in our organizations.

"And — finally — a change in how we address an issue that has undermined our work, our values and our reputation for far too long. Thank you."

Media contacts

Najwa Mekki
Tel: +1 917 209 1804

Additional resources

UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore with BTS and Lilly Singh
On 24 September 2018 at the United Nations Headquarters, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore UNICEF and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Lilly Singh stand with UNICEF supporters BTS, a global pop group, in advance of the launch of Generation Unlimited at Youth 2030, a High-Level event at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, which opened on 18 September at UNHQ.

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