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First CSOs Townhall Meeting on Ending Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in Global Health
Collective Responsibility, Collective Action

On December 2021, Women in Global Health, FEMNET and ARSF co-authored a letter to the World Health Organization(WHO) on ending Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment (SEAH) in Global Health in response to the Independent Commission’s report on allegation of SEAH in the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC) during the 10th Ebola Outbreak. The letter was signed by more than 210 Civil Society Organizations(CSOs) across the globe, two-thirds of them were from the global south.

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TOWNHALL MEETING

The event was the first Townhall meeting that gathered CSOs to reflect on the progress made thus far and to strategize the next steps regarding the prevention of SEAH in global health. It was a virtual gathering that hosted distinguished speakers from the United Nations, World Health Organizations and Civil Society Organizations.

KEY MESSAGES
  • SEAH must be framed as human rights issue.
  • Civil Society Organizations need to be included in a collective response to  tackling SEAH.
  • Sub-Regional conversation and convenings are crucial to ignite coordination and accountability in response to SEAH. 
  • So far, there is no strong cross-collaborative effort between UN bodies and CSOs responding to SEAH issues.
  • More support with  flexible  funding is much needed  for women's rights and CSO organizations who address SEAH matters.
  • Voices of women from the global south must not be neglected and should be the center of decision making.
  • INGOs must address safeguarding in their work.
  • The lack of coordination between UN systems in reporting must be solved, especially the number of multiple hotlines in one country have made reporting difficult.
  • The focus must shift from protecting organizational reputations to protecting people, especially women and children.
  • The language must change from referring to ‘vulnerable women and girls’. They are not vulnerable, they are made vulnerable by power imbalances and impunity.

The event was moderated by Ms. Fauzia Yazdani, a social policy expert with three decades of experience drawn from work with the governments of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Nigeria, international donors and the UN system.

Dr. Magda Robalo, Global Managing Director of Women in Global Health, conveyed three critical points:

  • The vast majority of perpetrators of sexual exploitation and abuse are men and therefore its a men’s problem not a women’s problem.Typically, it is women who work to find solutions.
  • NGOs, especially women led organizations, are a central part of the solution, ideally with a multi stakeholder approach.
  • Women’s underrepresentation in leadership and decision-making increases the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Ms. Jane Connors, United Nations Victims’ Right Advocate, described the work of the UN Victims’ Advocate office and their planned activities which includes the release of a Victims Rights statement clarifying the context of the content of the victims rights approach for endorsement across the system. She highlighted the scope of SEAH is beyond the perception of largely  uniformed personnel and pointed out the case in DRC demonstrated this. She also acknowledged the difficulty of implementing the victim/survivors approach. She said there was an issue of sensitivity to navigate in providing a wide range of support and justice measures and managing expectations in terms of  expectations of what is achievable in the current systems.

Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, Director of Prevention and Response to SEAH at the World Health Organization, presented the work of her office since its establishment in July 2021. She acknowledged WHO’s failure in safeguarding in its programmes and said the organisation had  learned its lesson the hard way.  WHO has now organised three pillars of work to address SEAH under her leadership.  Firstly, putting victims and survivors at the heart of its prevention and response work,  secondly “getting its house in order” by establishing, capacitating & enforcing individual and managerial accountability and thirdly, reforming  WHO’s culture, structures, systems and capacity. She indicated that WHO is  on track with the implementation plan with one third of action points completed. Dr. Gaya also noted the importance of engagement with CSOs.

DR. GAYA'S PRESENTATION

The importance of framing SEAH as a human rights issue was underlined by Ms. Purna Sen, Adjunct Professor at London Metropolitan University, who has considerable experience within the UN and other International NGOs working SEAH. She highlighted the need to think beyond the three P’s:Policies, Procedures and naming Prohibited behaviors when tackling SEAH. She pointed out the narrative of a  benevolence act of the North saving the south and the West saving the East was poor framing.

Important points included:

  • Asking victims/survivors to report when investigations lack timeliness and accountability.
  • Maintaining independence of CSOs.
  • Forming alliances and merging efforts.
  • Calling out wrong doing and recognising and addressing cultural changes.

She recommended two UN publications on Bridging the gap on SEAH and promoting cultural change to end sexual harrasment. 

Ms. Bibyshe Mundjo, whose organization is based in DRC and works closely with victims and survivors underscored the fragmentation of CSOs in coordinating efforts. Her organization, ARSF,  works in various aspects of women empowerment and support of SEAH survivors, support of  reporting services, media engagement in awareness, advocacy work including changing legislations. ARSF has also worked on improving women's economic livelihoods. They have put in place professional health teams that will support women in their psychological recovery and to deal with the aftermath of such sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment. They work with specialized police teams to work on particular cases of abuse. She fiercely called for better collaboration among CSOs and demanded a multi stakeholder approach to tackle SEAH.

The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) is a pan-African, feminist and membership-based network based in Nairobi with over 800 members across 49 African countries. Since inception in 1988, FEMNET has strategically positioned itself as a convenor, organizer and facilitator of dialogues around critical issues ending Gender Based Violence. During the event both Hellen Apilla, FEMNET’s Advocacy Lead and Ms. Memory Kachambwa highlighted the importance of including the voice of women from the global south in global discussions  and decision making. Ms. Hellen has also mentioned the need for convening sub-regional conversations to ensure accountability to tackle SEAH.The first African Commission on the Status of Women they organized in Nairobi in parallel to New York one was mentioned as an example. Another important point made by Ms Memory and agreed by many participants from the chat is the need for flexible funding to women’s rights organizations. 

Comments and questions raised by participants included:

  • Issues with the Hotline for reporting. There are multiple ones and a lack coordination. 
  • Inclusion of the voices of women and girls with disabilities.
  • Importance of coordination of CSOs.
  • The need for gender transformative approaches.
  • Addressing judicial issues at the global level and in international jurisdictions.
  • CSOs with mandate to address women's issues to make their organization very open and inclusive to engage more women from the community in conversation on violence against women and girls.
  • Need for a multi-stakeholder approach to tackle SEAH. 
  • Lack of programs on women's leadership for children of all sexes from an early age to change the social norms for future generations.
  • The need for CSOs to follow a collective and participatory approach in partnership with survivors of GBV as well as families and communities to improve the response system.
  • Strengthening access to justice and emergency services.
  • The importance of similar engagements and conversations to amplify voices and coordinate better. 
Ms. Fauzia highlighted that change must challenge existing social and cultural narratives. Individuals should call out the problem by naming it and knowing it. Agencies should also frame SEAH through survivors' perspectives  to ensure inclusion and justice. She mentioned how multi-stakeholder collaboration and partnerships should be at the center to tackle it.

This townhall is the first of its kind to gather CSOs on this important issue. Given the high number of participant CSOs at the townhall and who co-signed the letter, and that there were more questions and insights than we had time to address, it is clear a second Town Hall will be needed to go more deeply into recommendations and solutions from CSOs so these can be taken into account by UN and civil society organizations when setting up safe and accountable systems.

NEXT STEPS
  • A second Townhall will be organized to hear more from CSOs on challenges and solutions in tackling SEAH in global health and contributing to a survivor centered approach.
  • A Global campaign to end SEAH in global health will be explored.
  • Sub-Regional conversations within Africa are needed.
  • Investigation of collaborative restorative justice mechanisms such as a survivor story site. 
  • Proposal of a collaborative working group between CSO and multilateral efforts on SEAH in the health sector.
UPCOMING EVENTS
Virtual Town Hall with WHO Director-General Dr Tedros  
A dialogue with CSOs on their contribution on the Prevention  and Response to Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment

On 21st April 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) will host a townhall meeting that will include panels comprised of several invited speakers and CSOs. A  broad range of civil society organizations in official relations with WHO will be invited to this event.  

The purpose of the event is to surface challenges related to prevention of SEAH and to co-create solutions and actions WHO and CSOs can take to prevent, detect and respond to SEAH.  
Stay tuned for the outcomes of this important event. 

 

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Ms. Bibyshe Mundjo, whose organization is based in DRC and  works closely with victims and survivors underscored the fragmentation of CSOs in coordinating efforts. Her organization, ARSF,  works in various aspects of women empowerment and support of SEAH survivors, support of  reporting services, media engagement in awareness, advocacy work including changing legislations. ARSF has also  worked on improving women's economic livelihood. They have put in place health teams, professional health teams that will support women in their psychological recovery and to deal with the aftermath after such sexual exploitation, abuse or harassment. They have put in place specialized police teams to work on particular cases of abuse. She fiercely called for better collaboration among CSOs and demanded  for a multi stakeholder approach to tackle SEAH.