Commission contacts Oxfam after reports of sexual exploitation

30 Oct 2017 News

The Charity Commission has contacted Oxfam following reports in the Times about sexual harassment and exploitation at the charity over the weekend. 

The regulator has also reminded charities about having safeguarding procedures in place. 

On Saturday the Times revealed that the number of reports of sexual exploitation by Oxfam staff and partners has increased from 26 two years ago to 87 in 2016/17. The story has also been covered by the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard. 

The Times has also reported allegations made a former country director about how a complaint was handled in 2010. The Times said that she was prompted to speak up because of the widespread coverage of allegations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein. 

The newspaper said: "Triggered by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, she feels the time is right to make her experience public to show it is not just in Hollywood where women are harassed and assaulted." 

Oxfam said it has improved its procedures since 2010. 

87 allegations

In the period of 2016/2017, 87 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation were reported. Oxfam said that of those, "53 of the incidents were referred to the police and other services, 33 were investigated internally and one is still pending. Of those internally investigated, 74 percent were fully upheld and resulted in disciplinary action." 

The Times reported that seven senior Oxfam officials have been investigated in the past year over safeguarding allegations, including sexual harassment and the covering up of exploitation. It said that the officials are all men and have been working as country directors in Africa, Asia and Latin America. A total of 37 country directors are supervised by Oxfam GB. 

The seven cases are among the 87 sexual exploitation claims involving Oxfam staff investigated in 2016/17.  

The Charity Commission said in a statement that it is aware of the allegations and is in contact with Oxfam. 

It said in a statement: "We have become aware that Oxfam is dealing with a number of concerning allegations about both recent, and non-recent, safeguarding incidents involving senior staff, including allegations of sexual harassment. We are in contact with the charity to establish both how the trustees are responding to the individual allegations, as well as to reassure ourselves that they are taking steps to ensure the charity is appropriately safeguarding all people who come into contact with it, including its staff and volunteers.” 

'People more aware of safeguarding' 

Oxfam, which publishes the number of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by staff in its annual report each year, said that it believes that the number of allegations it has received is a result of more people being aware of its safeguarding and whistle-blowing procedures, and having more confidence to report incidents. 

In a statement, a spokesperson said: "Oxfam treats all allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation very seriously. We have a confidential 'whistle-blowing' helpline, a dedicated Safeguarding Team, and safeguarding focal or contact points within countries.  
"In recent years we have worked hard to raise awareness amongst staff and inform them about how they can make complaints in confidence without fear of victimisation. We encourage people to report wherever they have a concern – and we have seen more people come forward as a result." 

The charity said that it, as well as many other organisations, needs to "get better at preventing and dealing with sexual abuse". But added that as an international organisation fighting for women’s rights "we have a special responsibility to practice what we preach and protect our staff, volunteers and beneficiaries from sexual harassment and abuse". 

Oxfam said that it is not unique, and that "sexual abuse is a serious problem in society. It said: "High profile cases have shone light into this very dark corner of society and give us a chance to do more to tackle sexual abuse." 

Oxfam's accounts for the previous year, the year ending March 2016, showed that there had been 64 reported allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by its staff and partners, which had been an increase from 26 on the year previous. Of that 64, it said that 38 allegations were investigated, 12 allegations were pending investigation at the time of the publication of the accounts, and the remaining 14 allegations either did not require investigation or investigation was not possible. 

The charity said: "We continue to learn and seek to improve not just in how we handle complaints but also in changing the culture in which we work to prevent the abuse of power in the first place and support those that speak out." 

'Put in robust safeguarding processes'

The Charity Commission has reminded charities of the need to have safeguarding procedures in place.  

It said: "They should foster a culture that promotes the wellbeing of their staff and must put in place robust safeguarding procedures and ensure these are followed in practice. Such procedures should cover how the charity responds to individual allegations of harassment or abuse, including by reporting them to the police where appropriate, and to consider reporting them to the Commission as a serious incident.” 


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