Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) represent grave breaches of the right to safety, security and dignity of persons of concern. UNHCR is committed to taking all necessary action to prevent, mitigate the risks of and respond to sexual misconduct and to put the protection, rights and dignity of victims at the forefront, in line with our policy on a Victim-Centered Approach in UNHCR's response to sexual misconduct.
Sexual exploitation is defined as any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.
Sexual abuse means the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force, or under unequal or coercive conditions. It includes sexual slavery, pornography, child abuse and sexual assault. All UN personnel and UN implementing partners have an obligation to report whenever they have concerns or suspicions that SEA has occurred by a fellow worker, whether in the same agency or not and whether or not within the United Nations system, and including potential misconduct by government and NGO partners.
PSEA policies and practices aim to reduce the risk of, prevent and respond to SEA by UN personnel, NGO partners, or other entities and persons involved in providing humanitarian or development assistance, including government staff, contractors, and refugee incentive workers, to ensure that allegations of SEA are reported and responded to in a timely and appropriate manner, and that victims of SEA are referred to support and assistance needed in line with a victim centred approach.
SEA can happen anywhere and at any time. UNHCR emergency operations take place in fragile environments with particularly high risks of abuse and exploitation of people affected by displacement and thereby exposed to heightened protection risks.. For example, in an emergency displacement context, there is often a breakdown of the usual protective institutions such as the family, community, government and law enforcement structures, etc. Means of livelihood are severely affected, and there are usually considerable practical and psychosocial implications on the lives of those affected. The impacts of forced displacement are often particularly severe for affected women and children. Lack of awareness by persons of concern about their rights and entitlements in an unfamiliar environment also increase risks of exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, emergencies bring a rapid increase in the number of partners for the humanitarian response, rapid recruitments and staff turnover, high work pressures, and challenges to ensuring effective coordination and oversight, thereby increasing the risks of all forms of misconduct, including SEA.
It is therefore critical for staff in emergency operations to be mindful of these elevated risks of SEA and take measures from the outset of the emergency response to prevent and respond to SEA and mitigate risks thereof, and ensure that victims of SEA are provided with support and assistance in line with UNHCR's Policy on a Victim Centred Approach. Managers have a particular responsibility to ensure that the UNHCR Code of Conduct is upheld, and to create and sustain a respectful and inclusive environment that prevents sexual exploitation and abuse. Since the relationship between humanitarian personnel and persons of concern is inherently unequal in terms of power and authority, staff and partners must avoid any action that could suggest, imply or create the perception that engaging in sexual activity with humanitarian personnel might be expected in return for assistance or other services of any kind. PSEA Coordination structures need to be established if not already in place and PSEA must be treated as a priority in the operational strategy for the emergency response.
From the outset of the emergency, UNHCR and its partners must establish mechanisms that prevent and respond to sexual exploitation or abuse and mitigate risks thereof. Any act of SEA constitutes serious misconduct and allegations must be reported immediately to the Inspector General's Office (IGO), which can be reached directly at [email protected], via the IGO online complaint form or through management. For UNHCR staff, allegations can also be reported through the SpeakUp! Helpline. For more information on reporting complaints of SEA, refer to How to Report Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (IGO Intranet page).Support and assistance must be provided to victims of SEA, in line with a victim-centred approach as outlined in UNHCR's Policy on a Victim-Centred Approach in UNHCR's response to Sexual Misconduct,.
In an emergency context, systems and structures (such as an interagency PSEA taskforce or network, or community-based feedback mechanisms to prevent and respond to SEA) may not be present and may need to be established. New staff and partners recruited for the emergency may not possess the knowledge or skills to handle SEA issues, and may lack dedicated policies and training on PSEA. In the context of cross-border and onward movements by persons of concern, specific measures to respond and prevent SEA may need to be supported at the regional level.
It is critical that all related actions, processes and procedures adopt a victim-centred approach, which is defined in UNHCR's Policy as "a way of engaging with victim(s) that prioritizes listening to the victim(s), avoids re-traumatization, and systematically focuses on their safety, rights, well-being, expressed needs and choices, thereby giving back as much control to victim(s) as feasible and ensuring the empathetic and sensitive delivery of services and accompaniment in a non-judgmental manner". The afore-mentioned Policy outlines key principles that should guide all aspects of UNHCR's approach to SEA prevention, risk mitigation and response.
Steps to be taken
From the moment of arrival, and throughout their work at a duty station, senior managers and other staff must take action to ensure that SEA does not take place, if it does occur, provide victims with support and assistance and eliminate the risk of its recurrence. The following are key steps that must be followed in an emergency response:
- Recruitment: Ensure that all newly recruited local staff and members of the affiliate workforce are cleared by the UN Clear check database before they are issued a contract or letter of offer, in accordance with the High Commissioner's all staff message of 5 August 2019. Make sure that all staff have signed the Code of Conduct declaration and have completed the mandatory e-learning course on PSEA available on Learn and Connect.
- Capacity-building and Sensitization: Train and equip all staff, partners and other stakeholders in PSEA and take specific steps to prevent it. For example, discuss PSEA action plans in office meetings, meet with government officials to discuss prevention, organize capacity-building sessions with staff, partners, authorities, contractors, and other actors involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, etc. Ensure that all people involved in project activities (e.g. warehouse & distribution workers, cash assistance, enumerators, community mobilisers, incentive workers), etc., in particular those who come into contact with PoCs, have received PSEA training, signed the Code of Conduct declaration (see Code of Conduct used for service providers involved in the delivery of cash assistance to persons of concern), and understand what SEA is and how to report it. Please refer to "Learning and Resources" under the PSEA/SH Intranet page to locate learning tools and materials for use by UNHCR personnel as well as partners, as well as the section "Learning and Resources" below.
- Focal points: Ensure that PSEA focal points are appointed at the national level in each office. Guidance on the role, duties and responsibilities of key stakeholders in field operations, including senior managers and PSEA focal points, can be found in the Factsheet PSEA / SH and Planning in COMPASS.
- Coordination: Establish an inter-agency PSEA network (where one does not already exist) to ensure effective coordination on PSEA amongst partners for prevention, risk mitigation and response. In a refugee response, UNHCR should take the lead in establishing and coordinating the PSEA network in close collaboration with partners, local authorities and affected communities. In IDP situations, UNHCR should jointly work with other agencies for the establishment and operationalization of a PSEA Network if one does not exist already, and actively participate in the Network. See also entry on Coordination Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA)
- Assessment and Mitigation of Risks: In collaboration with stakeholders, including affected people, assess and map potential risk areas by sector and discuss actions that can prevent and reduce the risks of SEA. Integrate SEA prevention, risk mitigation and response into protection analysis and multi-sectoral programming. A tool to assist field operations in ensuring that possible SEA risks are adequately identified and analysed and relevant treatments are thoroughly considered is available here.
- Community Engagement and Awareness-raising: Strengthen community engagement and awareness-raising. Critical activities include systematically integrating PSEA messages in information campaigns and disseminating information related to PSEA through diverse channels that are adapted to the local context and are accessible to women, men, girls of concern of diverse backgrounds. These may include distribution of posters and leaflets, dissemination of audio-visual materials, social media, awareness-raising sessions and community meetings, focus group discussions, public address systems, mass media, dissemination at service delivery points, etc. To prevent SEA effectively, UNHCR has the responsibility to ensure that PoCs know their rights and entitlements, including that all humanitarian assistance and services are free, that they should never be expected to provide any form of sexual favor, and that demands for such favors are strictly prohibited. Likewise, information should be provided to clarify that sexual relationships between beneficiaries and humanitarian personnel are generally prohibited. UNHCR should also ensure affected people know how and where to report SEA incidents safely and confidentially when they occur, and how and where they can access multi-sectoral support and assistance.
- Community-based Complaints Mechanisms: Ask focal points to coordinate with other actors on the ground to map existing feedback mechanisms that can safely and confidentially receive complaints related to SEA from communities and partners, and design and establish feedback mechanisms to fill gaps if required. In particular, identify and support feedback channels that are preferred by communities and ensure that the design of any new mechanisms are informed by community feedback. Ensure that feedback mechanisms are sensitive to age, gender and diversity (AGD) and accessible to women, children, persons with disabilities, older persons, minority groups, and others at heightened risk. Steps must also be taken to ensure that all personnel staffing feedback mechanisms fully understand the definition of SEA (as affected people may not explicitly use the terms "sexual exploitation" or "sexual abuse"), and be trained to appropriately refer individuals to services and to appropriately report SEA allegations, in line with the mandatory reporting obligation. To enhance accessibility and uptake, promote multiple mechanisms rather than relying on a single channel, in order to address the diverse preferences, needs and capacities of PoCs within the community. Clarify complaint collection procedures and responses with partners and establish clear tasks and duties (who will do what, where, and how). Wherever possible, it is critical to put in place an effective interagency complaints referral mechanism that permits and encourages individuals to report instances of SEA easily, confidentially, and safely, even if they do not know the organization the alleged perpetrator is affiliated with. An effective interagency complaints referral mechanism aims to ensure that a complaint can be made (by an affected person or by humanitarian personnel) to any organization involved in the response, and that the complaint will be promptly and reliably referred to the appropriate entity whose personnel is implicated as the potential perpetrator.
- Survivor / Victim Assistance: Map existing response services and ensure referral pathways are in place so that survivors of SEA can confidentially access the support that they require, in line with a victim-centred approach as outlined above. Such support may include measures to guarantee their safety, obtain basic material assistance, medical care, psychosocial support or legal services, as part of GBV case management services for GBV survivors. Ensure collaboration with relevant coordination structures and actors, including GBV, child protection and Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP), which are to take the lead in mapping services under their respective areas of responsibility and liaising with PSEA Focal Points to ensure SEA considerations and specificities are duly incorporated into their SOPs and ways of working.
- Partner Capacity Assessment and capacity-strengthening and monitoring implementation plan: Assess PSEA capacity of prospective implementing partners that are engaged in the emergency response, in accordance with the UN Protocol on Allegations of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse involving Implementing Partners (UN Protocol, April 2018) and the UNHCR Administrative Instruction on Implementing Partner PSEA Capacity Assessment (UNHCR/AI/2021/06). If a UNHCR Office finds that a prospective partner lacks satisfactory PSEA capacity, it must justify a decision to select that partner and establish an implementation plan that builds the new partner's capacity appropriately, monitor its performance in the course of programme activities, and manage associated risks. Relevant units will develop, jointly with the partner, an implementation plan for capacity development and monitoring if the assessment results in low or medium capacity. The implementation of the plan must be continuously monitored, and the capacity of current partners may eventually be re-assessed. Please refer to the AI for further details.
- Reporting: Report allegations of SEA without delay. Personnel who have concerns or suspicions that SEA is occurring or who are aware of SEA allegations have an obligation to bring such information immediately to the attention of the IGO. IGO reporting channels may be used by persons of concern or anyone else who is aware of SEA allegations. Staff should not investigate SEA allegations themselves, because to do so might compromise confidentiality, put victims and witnesses at risk, disrupt due process and negatively impact the integrity of the investigation process. Personnel who report a complaint to the IGO or who cooperate in an IGO investigation are protected from any form of retaliation by UNHCR's Administrative Instruction on Protection against Retaliation (UNHCR/AI/2018/10/Rev.1)
Learning and resources
It is mandatory all staff to complete the newly updated on-line PSEA training module at regular intervals. It is available on Learn and Connect here. Partners can access this e-learning in 11 languages after registration here.
In 2021, UNHCR launched the internal PSEA/SH Learning Package, an interactive and innovative programme that aims to develop the skills, knowledge and behaviour of all members of UNHCR personnel (staff, affiliate workforce and interns) to define, detect, prevent and respond to sexual misconduct. The package contains two face-to-face courses, as well as an adapted version for virtual delivery, which have been developed specifically for UNHCR internal use. For training partners and external audiences, there is the IASC Saying No to Sexual Misconduct package available here, and the e-learning on Investigating Allegations of SEA. A full list of learning resources are available on the PSEA/SH Intranet here, including short videos for facilitating staff dialogues, and the Gouta Case Conference, a case study tool to facilitate peer-to-peer exchange among PSEA Focal Points.
UNHCR PSEA Focal Points and other colleagues involved in PSEA work participate in a community of practice forum called the PSEA Community Network. This community is a space to exchange, access resources, learn about UNHCR's commitment to PSEA, and get inspired by good practices and examples. It includes a discussion board, and a resource library where you can search by language, category (e.g., outreach materials, ToRs) and other criteria. You can request access to the group here. Additional resources are included in the sections below.
Related UNHCR management system(s)
In March 2018, the High Commissioner appointed a Senior Coordinator to lead and coordinate UNHCR's work on SEA and SH. A UNHCR Working Group on SEA and SH was also formalized in May 2018 with multifunctional representation. Currently the Working Group is comprised of representatives from the Ethics Office, the Legal Affairs Service (LAS), the Inspector General's Office (IGO), the Division of External Relations (DER), the Division of Human Resources (DHR) including the Staff Health and Welfare Service (SHWS), the Ombudsman's Office, the Division of Emergency, Security and Supply (DESS), the Division of International Protection (DIP), the Innovation Service, the Implementing Partner Management and Assurance Service and Enterprise Risk Management.