UN?s #MeToo moment: One in three women have experienced sexual abuse, survey says

Contrary to popular belief, non-profit organisations function like any other institution. With a structure based on male hegemony and power abuse, international bodies aimed at protecting human rights and interests have long since been allowed to escape accountability for perpetuating crimes that go against their very ethos, until the global #MeToo movement began calling out sexual harassment and assault at the workplace.

According to a shocking report released by the United Nations on Tuesday, one third of its female staff and contractors have reported sexual harassment in the past two years.

Low response rate

Of the UN system’s total global workforce of 105,000, only 17% participated in the online survey, carried out by Deloitte in November amidst the wider #MeToo movement. Sharing the survey results in a letter to UN employees on Monday, Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented on the dismal response rate, calling it “moderately low”.

“This tells me two things: first — that we still have a long way to go before we are able to fully and openly discuss sexual harassment; and second — that there may also be an ongoing sense of mistrust, perceptions of inaction and lack of accountability,” Guterres who had commissioned the consulting firm to conduct the survey, said.

Guterres is believed to have made empowering women and ending sexual harassment and abuse one of his priorities. Under his leadership, the representation of women in the Professional and higher categories in the UN system has gone up to 42.8%, as per last poll in August 2017.

Following the damning report and reflecting on the “sobering statistics and evidence of what needs to change to make a harassment-free workplace real for all of us,” Guterres said, “As an organization founded on equality, dignity and human rights, we must lead by example and set the standard,” he said.


The survey revealed that 21.7% of the respondents were within earshot of sexual anecdotes or subjected to offensive jokes, 14.2% had to hear offensive remarks about their appearance, body or sexual acts. While 13% had to ward off attempts to reel them into discussions of sexual nature, 10.9% said they were subjected to sexual gestures which made them offended or embarrassed them. Around 10% of the 30,364 staffers who polled were touched in a way that made them feel uncomfortable.

Only one in three people said they took action after experiencing sexual harassment. Abuse was recorded in the office environment as well as in work-related social events. The harassers were overwhelmingly men who accounted for 68.4% while 15.9% were women.

The survey also made a disturbing note that 12 per cent of the harassers were senior leaders in the UN. More than half the harassers were colleagues and a little over 12 per cent were supervisors or managers, while about eight per cent were outsiders, including diplomats and donors. 

Origin: UNAIDS report

Last November, a UN organisation made headlines after reports of widespread gender intolerance, sexual harassment and bullying emerged. UNAIDS, an organization that works to stop the spread of HIV worldwide by promoting safe sex, female empowerment and human rights was called out and its Executive Director Michel Sidibé was forced to hand in his resignation, after the report by an independent panel of experts was issued December 7.

Stating that UNAIDS’ leadership is “in crisis”, it held the authorities responsible for the “culture of impunity becoming prevalent in the organization, a culture that does not ensure a safe and dignified workplace for its staff, and one that fails to respect human rights in line with law and United Nations values”.

One of the respondents told the panel that abuse of power within the UNAIDS extended to promising jobs, contracts and all sorts of opportunities for favours, and even using “UNAIDS resources to access sex workers”. The report makes for such a chilling read that the Swedish government, which is the agency’s second-largest donor, had threatened to withdraw all funds from the program unless Sidibé resigned.

Charged with breeding a work culture “of fear, lack of trust, and retaliation against those who speak up about harassment and abuse of power,” Sidibé agreed to step down, but not until June 2019.

Closer home, the MeToo movement had called out widespread misogyny and predatory culture in the Indian NGO circuit as well. Writer and activist Mari Marcel Thekaekara had called out Mazher Hussain of COVA, a reputed Hyderabad NGO with ties with Oxfam India, Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and the Ford Foundation. In her article, she had noted a similar culture of non-reportage, disbelief and dismissal of survivors’ accounts to save the influential leaders of these institutions, supposedly doing “good work” from facing the consequences of their actions.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

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