„Addressing GBV in the workplace is a journey for many organizations“


Physical or sexual violence is part of women's everyday experience in many places - also in the workplace. Often it is about abuse of power. There have also been cases of gender-based violence in some non-governmental organisations in recent years. Protective measures have been taken as a result. But is that enough? An interview with Christine Ash Büchner.

Hände sind schützend vor den Körper gehalten

Please tell us about gender-based violence in the workplace. What is that and what are the causes for it?

Christine Ash Büchner: Well, as we know, gender based violence (GBV) really is about harmful acts against an individual, based on their sexual identity or gender identity. It is rooted in inequality between people, gender inequality, it is about abuse of power harmful norms. So, when we think of it in this context, specifically in the workplace, it is the same types of things happening out of power imbalance. There you have one person in a position of power, of one gender, who holds that power over another gender. It can come in the form of sexual harassment in the workplace; it can come in a form of bullying or discrimination, where you for example end up dealing with serious negative mental health well-being or something more tangible such as not getting a job promotion. It can also come in the form of harmful language, inappropriate jokes. It is very much about abuse and exploitation, rooted in gender.

There was a lot happening internationally in diverse non-governmental organizations in the last years, incidents in terms of gender-based violence, which lead organizations to take action related to safeguarding. You were engaged by some of those organizations, can you tell us more about your experiences?

Frameworks and policies really started to come about in the early 2000s. There was a mission going into parts of West Africa where the consultants have found that there was an increasingly high number of reports of the sexual abuse of vulnerable women and children in particular, which implicated UN staff and international NGO staff as the alleged perpetrators. With this report coming out around 2001 there was a huge call by the Interagency Standing Committee (IASC), which was a compilation of the International Committee of the Red Cross working together with the UN and some international NGOs that said that we need some basic principles for what we do. What is appropriate behavior, what is not appropriate behavior?

And this is where the IASC Principles were born in 2002. The IASC put out six principles saying what is OK and what is not OK. This is what the Secretary General`s Bulletin that came out in 2003 is based on. The principles have since been in updated in 2019. It says for example that any exchange of sexual favors for money is prohibited or that sex with anybody under the age of 18 is prohibited, ensuring that where is an imbalance of power and trust, senior managers have a specific responsibility to ensure a safe work environment for people. If you suspect that there is any kind of inappropriate behavior, you are obligated to report that, to ensure better follow up.

Out of this came the whole movement into child protection – what is safe programming for children? With this we started looking at safer programming for adults as well. The idea of having a policy around the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse started to take of 2008-2009, when the IASC solidified the principles with the UN and people started to adopt them.  As we moved through the early 2010s, we started hearing about different types of scandals that were coming across. In 2015 there was a media report about a scandal that happened in Haiti involving a large international NGO. Documents were leaked to the media that the country director and other senior managers were using sex workers at this time and there was an internal investigation but it was swept under the rug. The senior management was removed but they were not fired. This scandal really brought to light what kind of work we are doing and how we are acting as responsible or not responsible in the communities we are working in. There was a lot of discussion around what is our responsibility, why are we doing this, are we accountable to the people that we work for and with. And this is where having measures come into place, for safeguarding in particular, started to make their faces known in smaller organizations, civil society organizations, democracy building organizations and other types of communities where people were saying: no, we have a responsibility to show that the people we work for and with have something to expect from us.

During this time a whole series of safeguarding measures came into place and organizations were adopting policies. But, what we`ve since realized is – yes, it is good to have policies but if we don`t train people on what the policies actually mean in their own context, if we don`t ensure that culturally specific guidance is given for the different countries that we are working in, this policies are not going to work. This is what we hear about with more scandals coming up. Most recently, there was one in Congo in February 2021, when we heard that during the Ebola response crisis in 2016 women were exchanging sex in order to get jobs with the WHO.

As a practitioner, a consultant and an investigator now working for a large NGO myself, we do know that these things continue to happen and people are still afraid to report. The question for me is why are they afraid to report? What can we do to ensure that they feel safe to do so?

This leads us to the next questions: what can we do to protect people and how do we do it? What does it mean for an organization to create a safeguarding framework that protects employees, survivors, whistleblowers and other people?

I think for an organization it is important to ensure that at all levels of the organization there is an understanding and acceptance of personal responsibility for addressing issues of gender based violence within the workplace. For a framework to work it means that the most senior management has to demonstrate themselves that they abide and endorse the policy and support other levels to implement the policy. In practice, it means that there are funds to have people to deal with case management, that they provide the funds and time for people to train others and raise awareness and for employees to participate in those activities and training, that they spend time to ensure that managers of projects and programs are able to introduce safeguarding measures into regular program management.

It also means regular follow up with compliance checks. What does compliance mean in this case? It could mean that everyone has signed the policy and there is a full-time person dealing with the policy. Compliance means also that you have ensured that your programs are safe and the people you hire have relevant background checks, relevant education and have been able to go through awareness raising training and they can use the knowledge and pass it to other people.

Efficient safeguarding policy also means that you have people who are trained to deal with case management. Case management then includes something else. You have to have a feedback and response mechanism and make sure that it is an appropriate mechanism. So, it really filters down to the field level. It does not matter how big the office it is, what matters is that there is a communication flow and transparency and that people learn how safeguarding interacts with them on a daily basis. It will look differently for someone who is sitting at the desk in finance versus somebody who is running a workshop in a foreign country. It is important that people understand those differences.

I think addressing GBV in the workplace is a journey for many organizations. It starts with taking into account that we have a certain level of accountability for our actions and behavior in the work that we do. Going through that accountability means developing a policy and putting into place a framework in accordance with international labor standards. The longer journey is actually ensuring that this policy is alive document that changes with time and you continually have to refresh and follow up. It is not easy and all organizations go through this process, regardless of their size. What matters is that you take it seriously and start building on what you are doing. You need to ensure that you continue to grow and use your lessons learnt to improve. As we go through this, I hope in the future that as civil society organizations, community based organizations, humanitarian development organizations will continue to improve our responses to dealing with gender based violence because it does not have a place in a workplace.