85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped each year, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, 2 women a week are killed by a former or current partner and 360 children were trafficked for sexual exploitation last year. These are British statistics. Gendered violence and exploitation is not something that only occurs in ‘chaotic’ and ‘vulnerable’ environments, it is a systemic, endemic problem in all societies across the globe.
Prior to working at ACEVO I have worked as a civilian police officer, managed the National Stalking Helpline and volunteered with people in suicidal crisis. I learnt that anyone can experience abuse and that those who abuse often place themselves in roles that provide them with power over others and a veneer of respectability. Business leaders, managers, teachers, policeman and charity workers can be abusers. I thought when I moved to ACEVO, I would no longer find myself talking about gendered violence and abuse, but the fact that I am now shows how present it is in our society. It is only by openly acknowledging and recognising this fact that the voluntary sector can start to move forward from the recent reports of sexual misconduct that have been brought to light.
It is clear that Oxfam made mistakes in its response to reports of sexual misconduct towards staff and beneficiaries. They have apologised for these mistakes, now they must demonstrate what action they will take to minimise the risk of future abuse and rebuild any relationships with supporters and donors that have been damaged. The voluntary sector must also learn from Oxfam’s mistakes to make sure they are not repeated in other organisations. However in order to see sustained change the sector must also start to talk more openly about the broader issue that, however rare an occurrence, the voluntary sector is not immune from incidents of sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
Charities are values-led, we strive towards building a fairer, healthier, more equal world. But we are a part of society, not removed from it. This means that at times, we will see the worst of society within our organisations. When this happens I believe a charity should be judged on two things; the measures it had in place to prevent abuse or misconduct from occurring, and the action it takes to reduce the risk of the incident being repeated.
I am proud to work for a charity. Charities save lives every day by providing healthcare, food, refuge, counselling, by campaigning for cleaner air. Charity campaigns have significantly contributed to landmark achievements on issues as diverse as the introduction of the disability discrimination act, criminalising rape in marriage and improved animal welfare standards. I meet people everyday who inspire me and who demonstrate moral leadership. But there are a small number of people nationally and internationally who abuse the respect and trust that is afforded to them as charity workers.
As leaders we must now focus on what we can do to root out these individuals, even if this leads to revelations of more misconduct. Crucially this means listening, believing and supporting people who have experienced abuse and making sure that whistle-blowers know they will be supported and protected if they come forward. We must also be clear that this is not just a large charity issue, or an international charity issue. Safeguarding is relevant to all organisations of all sizes.
ACEVO will work with its members, the Charity Commission and partner infrastructure bodies like Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development, to ensure that there robust safeguarding and whistle-blowing policies are in place. However, we also want to place the voices of those who have been harmed, both beneficiaries and staff, at the centre of the work we do to address this. We are in the early days of the sector’s response to these reports and we must not try to move on too quickly. We must make sure that the voices of the people who have been harmed are heard.
Charities are rightly expected to meet high ethical and moral standards but we are not perfect. We should expect zero tolerance but to expect zero incidents is unrealistic and destructive and will only deter openness, ultimately damaging public trust. Charities do great work every minute of every day. If we are going to continue to do the work we are most proud of, we must actively confront the parts of the sector we are most ashamed of.
Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy, ACEVO