UNICEF’s position on sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment

UNICEF’s position on sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment

UNICEF’s position on sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment

As a humanitarian agency dedicated to children’s rights, UNICEF has zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse, and for sexual harassment. We take all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and respond vigorously whenever cases occur. 

Read: UNICEF's Strategy on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment

Sexual exploitation and abuse 

Sexual exploitation refers to any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, power or trust for sexual purposes. 

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

Sexual exploitation and abuse is prohibited and we have preventive policies in place. However, policies on their own are insufficient: Strong and determined action is equally essential. 

We are continuously exploring ways to better address the issue, on our own and by contributing to the broader efforts of the United Nations system, led by the UN Secretary-General, to strengthen the reporting of sexual exploitation and abuse, and to increase transparency around the issue. 

To that end, and building on the lessons we have learned over time, we have prioritised a number of new measures including: 

  • Improving safety and protection around the people we help through our field operations, especially in locations where the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse is higher.
  • Making the reporting of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse obligatory through an alert that notifies the Executive Director within 24 hours.
  • Providing additional training for our investigations team, including on child-friendly interviewing techniques.
  • Making training on the prevention of sexual exploitation mandatory for all of our staff and partners. 
  • Implementing more stringent vetting of new personnel.
  • Harnessing technology and innovation, including by adapting the cell phone-based U-report network to enable communities and victims to report sexual exploitation and abuse faster, safer, and confidentially.
  • Rolling out the UN protocol on victim assistance for implementation by all networks.

We have also taken steps to improve the quality and timeliness of the assistance and support we provide to victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. This includes medical care, psychosocial support, school re-integration, livelihood support, and legal assistance. 

UNICEF is part of the UN Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Working Group, which, together with the Conduct and Discipline Unit of UN Peacekeeping Operations, have led the development of a UN victim assistance protocol which is being rolled out this year.

UNICEF is also working with its UN partners to finalize a protocol on sexual exploitation and abuse allegations that puts forward a common approach, including reporting, staff training, investigations, victim assistance and risk assessment. 

Finally, UNICEF collaborated in the design of a UN-wide system to vet all incoming personnel for records of past sexual exploitation and abuse allegations. Mandatory UNICEF-wide training on the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse was rolled out in 2017. 

UNICEF’s response to sexual harassment 

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. While typically involving a pattern of behaviour, it can take the form of a single incident.

Since taking up her post in January 2018, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore has made it absolutely clear that more needs to be done to address cases of sexual harassment. 

Anyone who comes forward to report cases will be kept informed and will receive protection throughout any investigation. Those who fail to live up to UNICEF’s values will face consequences, including dismissal.

Currently, UNICEF addresses sexual harassment through clear policy prohibitions, prevention measures (such as mandatory training), investigation and discipline, and victim assistance (legal, psychosocial, medical, and conflict resolution and security-oriented support). 

In February 2018, UNICEF announced additional measures to prevent, report and respond to all forms of harassment in the workplace — including abuse of power. These measures include: 

  • Improving staff vetting and screening for new hires — including professional, background and criminal-record checks. In addition, a specialized UN reference-check facility is being established, and UNICEF will be part of it.
  • Hiring a task force of external and internal advisors – including representatives from UN and non-UN women’s organizations, private sector and civil society – that will review UNICEF practices on both workplace harassment and the sexual abuse and exploitation, and make recommendations on how UNICEF can improve its culture and policies.
  • Launching new ways to report incidents, and obtain ethics, legal and medical support, as well as counselling services. These include a new internal webpage with a button that, with one click, will allow UNICEF staff to alert managers that a problem exists in a particular office.
  • Expanding UNICEF’s online harassment training to include mandatory, in-person training for all staff members.
  • Launching online tools and open conversations to give staff an opportunity to voice their opinions.

On a longer-term basis, we are consulting as broadly as possible, inside the UN and UNICEF and outside, among stakeholders and staff, about effective and enduring changes we can make in the coming weeks, months and years. 

As UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said: “We are committed to a new era at UNICEF – one anchored by our strong, enduring commitment to achieving results for children and young people, and one grounded in openness, transparency and respect.”


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