Protecting children from sexual exploitation and abuse
UNICEF programming to prevent and respond to the sexual exploitation and abuse of children by aid workers.
In areas affected by conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies, people trust aid workers to assist and protect them.
The vast majority do so with professionalism and integrity. But some aid workers abuse their position of power through the sexual exploitation and abuse of those who depend on them, including children. These acts are unacceptable and violate criminal laws.
Sexual exploitation refers to any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, perpetrated by aid workers against the children and families they serve. Sexual abuse is the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions, perpetrated by aid workers against the children and families they serve.
When a child is subjected to related misconduct at the hands of someone other than an aid worker, this is defined as sexual violence. Sexual violence against children occurs in every country, across all segments of society.
Women and children in emergency settings face the greatest risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. High levels of need resulting from scarce resources, food shortages or economic insecurity can intensify the power imbalance in emergency settings, raising the possibility of sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian aid workers on whom communities depend, or by peacekeepers providing protection.
Humanitarian assistance programmes should be designed and delivered not only to mitigate the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse, but to provide the necessary response when abuse occurs.
Every year, UNICEF and partners respond to emergencies around the world, with thousands of aid workers contributing to the delivery of vital programmes for children affected by conflict, natural disasters and other crises.
Keeping children and adults safe from potential sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers requires action across UNICEF – by training personnel, vetting partners and providing immediate response when abuse does occur. UNICEF takes an organization-wide approach to the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, in which child protection workers play a critical role, together with investigators, human resource and ethics personnel, and others.
Our priority is ensuring that children and women are protected from sexual exploitation and abuse, and that victims are provided with the support and protection they need.
UNICEF co-chaired a process to develop a common United Nations (UN) set of standards and services for survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Victim Assistance Protocol, which outlines the core principles, standards, roles and responsibilities of UN entities and their partners to promptly refer and provide assistance to survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse. We also led a process to strengthen the United Nations approach to sexual exploitation and abuse involving implementing partners.
From 2018 to 2019, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore served as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Champion for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. Under Executive Director Fore’s leadership, IASC members, including UNICEF, developed and endorsed the IASC Plan for Accelerating Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Response at Country Level.
In line with the plan, UNICEF has scaled up investment to accelerate results for children and adults in three global priority areas:
Safe and accessible reporting
This means that safe, accessible and child-sensitive complaint mechanisms are put in place for reporting sexual exploitation and abuse in high-risk areas. These mechanisms can include phone hotlines, SMS services, designated focal persons and complaint boxes. Complaint mechanisms are tailored to the local context.
Community mobilization and awareness-raising campaigns on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse also take place in communities receiving humanitarian assistance. Campaigns are designed to alert communities of their rights, standards of behaviour for aid workers, and how to report allegations.
How to report
Should you become aware of credible information regarding an alleged incident of sexual exploitation or abuse, please report it directly or through your head of office to UNICEF’s Office of Internal Audit and Investigations by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are uncertain about whether an alleged incident is considered sexual exploitation or abuse, or whether an alleged incident is related to UNICEF programmes or operations, always err on the side of reporting.
All UNICEF personnel have a duty to report alleged incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse, and shall not be retaliated against for complying with this duty.
Support and assistance for sexual exploitation and abuse survivors
Through our child protection and gender-based violence programmes, UNICEF supports survivors with holistic age- and gender-appropriate essential services that they can access safely and in confidence, including medical care, safety planning, social services, legal aid, and mental health and psychosocial support.
Enhanced accountability, including investigations
Safe, survivor-centered accountability processes are crucial. UNICEF is working to strengthen the collaboration between child protection workers and investigators so that children who choose to participate in accountability processes are supported and their rights are respected.
The IASC Acceleration Plan is adapted within individual countries to meet the specific needs and context of the humanitarian response. Under the leadership of the Humanitarian Coordinator and Humanitarian Country Teams, UNICEF and partners are tracking progress to deliver on priority outcomes. The results achieved during Executive Director Fore’s Championship can be found in this report, and more information on UNICEF’s work with IASC is available here.