ERBIL, Iraq – “As humanitarians, we have a collective responsibility to prevent and safely respond to sexual abuse and exploitation in Iraq,” said Jennifer Emond, a UNFPA specialist on the subject, during a training programme in Iraq.
Risk of sexual exploitation and abuse escalate during times of crisis. Community protection systems are disrupted when populations are displaced, and breakdown in law enforcement enable perpetrators to abuse with impunity. Under conditions of deprivation and fear, people with power – even aid workers – may coerce others into sexual relationships in exchange for food, medicine or safety.
UNFPA and its partners are working to end these abuses through a range of actions known as “protection from sexual exploitation and abuse” (PSEA).
UNFPA and the World Food Programme are together co-chairing the Iraq Network to Protect from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. For the last two months, UNFPA and its PSEA network partners have been training humanitarian workers across Iraq on the principles of PSEA, including how to prevent abuses and respond if they occur.
“So far, we have trained up to 400 humanitarian workers in Sulaymaniyah, Dohuk, Baghdad, Basra, Soran and Erbil,” Ms. Emond said.
Those aid workers will themselves act as trainers, reaching out to hundreds more with critical information that can improve protections for vulnerable populations.
Improving reporting and protections
The trainings help humanitarian staff understand how sexual exploitation and abuse can occur in different scenarios, as well as the consequences for survivors, the community and all humanitarian actors. Participants are taught to understand the power imbalance between aid actors and vulnerable populations, and to realize what behaviour is not acceptable.
Humanitarian staff also learn how to respond when they receive complaints or witness abuses. One important action is to report misbehaviour to the PSEA Network.
“Now that we have a confidential system in place, we are trying to raise awareness… among partners and staff on what kind of behaviour we should follow when interacting with beneficiaries, and for staff to know how to report when they come across such cases,” said Ms. Emond.
As the trainings have been rolled out, other organizations and government agencies have expressed an interest in participating.
“The Department of Labour and Social Affairs of Thi Qar Governorate requested UNHCR to conduct the same PSEA training for their staff,” said Alia Albuswailem, the focal point for addressing sexual and gender-based violence in Iraq for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
A safe environment
Training participants are also guided in the development of an action plan to ensure that their staff understand what SEA is, what policies are in place, and what their obligations are.
“The training gave us a wider perspective on gender-based violence. I want my staff to be well-informed on gender-based violence issues and challenges,” said Akram T. Hamasaiid, from People's Development Organization, a UNFPA partner that manages six women’s support centres.
“We serve more than 1,500 women and girls each month. They reach out to us for advice and psychosocial support, and it is important that we inform them about their rights,” he said.
“We need to provide them with a safe environment,” Mr. Hamasaiid added.