Today is International Women’s Day again, a day that has been marked for more than a 100 years now, and has been important in reminding the world about women’s struggles in their fight for equality and justice. Last year, this time, it seemed like a continuing, never-ending struggle. But this year something fundamental has shifted that seems to provide more hope than usual that we could actually be making some progress.
In recent months, there have been headlines as never before about the rampant abuse and harassment of women across the world and across sectors—in Hollywood and Bollywood, in academia, in business, and much closer to home, in the development sector. There has been an outpouring of cries from women who have been abused for too long and who have decided to come forth. It has shocked us all to know that we are not alone and has made us brave enough to speak up and finally break the silence that has surrounded this issue forever. When Facebook and other social media exploded with #MeToo, we looked at each other afresh, asking each other #YouToo?
In Oxfam, this day this year comes as a day of deep reflection for us. We were founded in 1942, in the middle of World War II, by a handful of people who felt that it was the duty and responsibility of every human being to help others in suffering. From that moment, Oxfam grew into one of the largest humanitarian organisations in the world, responding to all the major disasters all over the world, restoring livelihoods, providing water and sanitation, and preventing epidemics by promoting public health and hygiene training. Oxfam has a long history in India since it is the first country that it came to, outside of Europe, at the time of the Bihar famine in 1951. Today, it is a network of 21 Oxfams with 10,000 staff working in more than 90 countries. The humanitarian imperative—of helping others in distress—remains in our DNA and is core to who we are. But we have gone beyond humanitarian work to become a development organisation that works to empower poor and marginalised communities, and puts women’s empowerment at the heart of what we do.
In India, we formed Oxfam India as an independent member of this global network in 2008. During the last 10 years, we have responded to 31 natural disasters and conflicts and have provided assistance to 12 lac beneficiaries directly. Literally, on the day we were founded in September 2008, the Kosi floods hit in Bihar and our team swung into action and we have never stopped since. In this effort to reach out to vulnerable people and help them rebuild their lives, we have been supported by the people of India who have given their time and money generously for these efforts.
In recent weeks, Oxfam has been in the news because a few privileged men abused the very people they were meant to protect – and our processes were too weak to stop them. We have made mistakes in how we handled these cases. And we should have been more transparent in our communications with the authorities and with the public. We are learning that social expectations –due to movements such as #MeToo and others—have changed dramatically in the last eight years. What has once considered a benchmark for best practices is no longer adequate. Our supporters feel that their trust has been broken. We hope that our apologies – but far more importantly our deeds and the steps we are taking – will begin to restore people’s trust in us. Our resolve is to make sure we never make the same mistakes again and that we strengthen safeguarding systems across the organisation to stamp out abuse.
A number of women in the aid and humanitarian sector have come together with an open letter condemning violence against women and girls perpetrated by aid workers. They are asking for three fundamental reforms to shift the patriarchal bias in aid:
Trust women: Organisations need to take action as soon as women report sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse; allegations must be treated with priority and urgency in their investigation; the subject of a complaint of this nature must be immediately suspended or removed from their position of power and reach of vulnerable women and girls.
Listen: Foster a culture where whistleblowing is welcome and safe - the way to win back the trust of donors, the public and the communities we work with is, to be honest about abuses of power and learn from disclosures. Sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse should no longer have to be discussed in hushed tones in our offices.
Deeds not words: We need effective leadership, commitment to action and access to resources. It is not enough to develop new policies, which are never implemented or funded - with the right tools; we can end impunity at all levels in the sector.
This is the very least we all must commit to doing. On International Women’s day in March 2019, we want to be able to look back with satisfaction at the progress we -- and the whole development sector--have made to honour our commitment to support women in their struggles for a more equal and just world.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)