Oxfam South Africa statement on Haiti sex abuse

SUBJECT: Oxfam South Africa (OZA) stands firm for accountability in the handling of sexual abuse by all including Oxfam

I write to you as a key partner in our pursuit of a world that is just for all, without the injustices of poverty and inequality.

Firstly, we appreciate your longstanding partnership with Oxfam South Africa and hope our organisations can continue to collaborate in this shared mission.

Established in 2014 and with its headquarters in Johannesburg, Oxfam South Africa is an autonomous organisation and the first African affiliate of Oxfam International. Oxfam International is a global confederation comprised of 20 NGOs (Affiliates) working together with partners in more than 90 countries of the world.

Our organisation is driven by a belief in a South Africa, an Africa and world that is just, where inequality and poverty are no more, and all people enjoy a life of dignity. For this reason, the acts of sexual abuse that have been reported in the media about some members of Oxfam (in this case Oxfam Great Britain), are a source of major outrage for us. Whilst Oxfam Great Britain who led the response in Haiti is one of 20 affiliates of Oxfam International, we believe that all of us as members of Oxfam International are being called to action through this.

According to the media reports, in 2011 and subsequently, some members of Oxfam staff in Haiti, Chad and South Sudan acted in a way that was totally unacceptable and is the most appalling mark against the high values we set ourselves as the Oxfam International Confederation.

As Oxfam South Africa, our priority is to stand fully by the survivors of such reprehensible behaviour. We are firmly against exploitation and abuse of women and girls. We are committed to ensuring that such behaviour is rooted out of our Confederation and any of its member affiliates including ourselves.

Oxfam International has a safeguarding framework meant to particularly protect people in distress who are vulnerable to abuse of power and coercion by those meant to protect and assist them. But, as Oxfam South Africa, we believe that ultimately, the litmus test of our commitment will be the extent to which we are willing as a confederation to be guided by the sentiments of survivors. We must reach out to them, we must hear what justice would look like for them. We must make support available for them in their journeys of healing. We must revisit the cases and bring those accountable to book. We have insisted that all of Oxfam must open the books. As a result, an Independent Review Panel is being set up to review all past and present cases and examine the cultural and leadership behaviours in Oxfam that have enabled these abuses.

When the Haiti situation was reported by whistle-blowers in 2011, Oxfam Great Britain took the following actions.

  • An investigation was launched as soon as the allegation came to the fore in 2011.
  • Four members of staff were dismissed because of the investigation and three, including the country director, resigned before the end of the investigation. Allegations that underage girls may have involved were not proven;
  • After the investigation, a thorough review of the case was undertaken that resulted in the creation of our dedicated Safeguarding Team and a confidential ‘whistleblowing’ hotline as part of a package of measures to ensure that we do all we can to protect our staff, prevent sexual abuse and misconduct happening in the first place and improve how we handle any allegations.
  • Oxfam put out a press statement on 5 August 2011 informing the public that we had launched the investigation and another on 5 September announcing the outcome.
  • Oxfam GB Trustees, the Charity Commission and DFID, as well as other major donors of our Haiti work including the EU, WHO and UN agencies, were kept informed of the investigation and its outcome.
  • The Charity Commission confirmed that Oxfam had taken appropriate action and that it therefore had ”no regulatory concerns”.
  • The misconduct findings related to offences including bullying, harassment, intimidation and failure to protect staff as well as sexual misconduct.

We have asked the questions about justice for survivors, and pushed for mechanisms being made available should they need them. Today, as a confederation of organisations, we have a binding global and dedicated Safeguarding approach, with a best practice package of measures to ensure we protect all our staff and people we work with, prevent sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse happening in the first place. But it is the extent to which these policies are implemented that must speak for our commitment.

In South Africa, Oxfam SA had been revising its own policies, to inculcate them with staff, volunteers and partners. Our anonymous Hotline will be fully-operational by the 1st of March 2018. We know the only way to change culture and make the safeguarding system work is to be open and transparent about abuse and to act boldly when cases arise.

Through our Women’s Rights and Gender Justice Programme, we support women’s and gender non-conforming people to liberate themselves through fostering powerful movements that can hold society, states and social institutions accountable to protect and expand their rights. Whilst no South Africans or staff of Oxfam South Africa were involved in these heinous acts, we are taking the public sentiments that have been triggered by these developments very seriously as an opportunity to cement a culture internally, that is in full alignment with the values we espouse externally.

We believe that all those who impact society must be held accountable for their actions or failures there-of. Over 75 years, from Biafra to Greece, Oxfam has done tremendous work standing on the side of people facing multiple crises. The fact that Oxfam was there when the people of Haiti faced the catastrophic aftermath of the Earthquake cannot be devalued.

In South Africa, our work on women’s rights and gender justice supports women to build better lives for themselves, to fight for a recognition of their contributions in societies, and to challenge social norms, attitudes and structures of power which diminish their full humanity. As a collective, our work challenging the policies and structures of power which reproduce inequality across our world and in South Africa is a critical contribution towards a just world for all. However, despite these tremendous achievements, Oxfam deserves no special treatment when we err, we must be held accountable.

Oxfam South Africa will be joining an Oxfam International-wide delegation to Haiti, Chad, and South Sudan to speak to survivors and hear from communities how best we can stand in our values as a confederation that believes that people to people solidarity remains a primary means by which we give life to the ideal of a just world for all of us.

Since the sexual abuse reports, we note also that questions have again arisen about the role and ethics of ”aid agencies”, which as an African organisation we believe are critical to engage in if we are to develop for ourselves the best tools we can build to address our collective challenges.

We welcome any questions, ideas or recommendations you have for us as a South African organisation, and as a member of an international network that must continually improve itself and strive to be a good model in the sector it is in, if it is to play a useful role in the world.


Sipho Mthathi

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