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Stopping Sexual Abuse in Humanitarian Work

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces people to stay at home, more women and girls find themselves increasingly vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV). When home is not a safe place, GBV survivors may turn to services that provide protection through counseling and safe spaces. But if the spaces that are supposed to be safe and the people who are supposed to help them in turn harm them further, where can they go to seek refuge? 

“As GBV service providers, we are supposed to give our best services (to survivors of violence). We cannot turn into the perpetrator,” Wiwik Andayani, Head of the Center of Integrated Services for the Empowerment of Women and Children (P2TP2A) Jakarta, said firmly. 

Meanwhile, P2TP2A Jakarta continues to provide services for GBV survivors despite challenges during COVID-19 pandemic. “We have faced a lot of obstacles in reaching survivors, such as in transportation and lack of budget for internet quota… Additionally, we have to rely on donors for the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE),” said Wiwik. “We still provide services, both online and offline. The offline services are only for urgent cases, where clients urgently need psychological examination and counseling in the legal process... we follow COVID-19 health protocols to protect not only the victims but also the officers. We prioritize online services, however… You can call 112, the emergency phone number, to access  P2TP2A services in Jakarta, or you can call our hotline number 081311611622,” Wiwik explained further. 

As P2TP2A and other organizations that respond to GBV cases are struggling to continue providing services amid the pandemic, they are facing another pressing issue. A male P2TP2A officer in East Lampung in July sexually abused an underage rape survivor who was seeking protection from the community-based governmental agency managed under the coordination of the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection (MOWECP). The perpetrator was immediately arrested by the police. As of September, the Lampung police have completed the investigation and handed over the files to the public prosecutors. 

“They’re supposed to educate the public to report, to have the courage to report. And then the perpetrator should be punished as a deterrent... They are guilty of abuse, so they must be punished… We have to comply with the law,” said Wiwik. 

It was not the first or the last case where people whose primary job is to help and protect instead abuse their power and turn into perpetrators of sexual exploitation. In November 2020, a non-civil servant officer of a child-friendly integrated public space (RPTRA) in North Meruya, West Jakarta was found to have raped a minor repeatedly. 

“A client of mine once also reported to me that somebody groped them. I didn’t know what to do at first since we didn’t have a mechanism to address such issues… I finally reported it to the administrative office, who followed up by apologizing and talking to the client and their family,” Norida (Nori), the Coordinator of Psychological Services of P2TP2A Jakarta, recalled. “It was hard for us to investigate and find out who did it, though, since we did not have a monitoring system like CCTV (surveillance camera) and the victim didn’t see the perpetrator.”

This incident, along with the RPTRA case, served as a reminder for Nori and colleagues that more regulations are required to protect their clients, especially the children. “Adult women are vulnerable to GBV, but children are much more vulnerable… So P2TP2A created a child safeguarding policy to ensure the rights and needs of children are respected, and to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse,” Nori explained.

Nori realized that the policy is only the first step, and that a lot more needs to be done. “We have no regulations regarding investigation, consequences for the perpetrators, and so on yet,” she said.

The Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) training that the MOWECP held in September 2020, with support from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women, provides staff and first responders at P2TP2A Jakarta, Depok, Bogor, Bekasi, Cirebon, Central Sulawesi, and North Lombok with better understanding of PSEA and how to prevent and address exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers. The training was delivered with the strong belief that PSEA should be at the heart of COVID-19 humanitarian response as the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse increases when the humanitarian response scales up. During the pandemic, women and children are at particular risk of potential harm due to disruption to livelihoods, public services, and freedom of movement.  

“What we learned from the training was that GBV can also take place in a humanitarian context. It’s highly likely to happen between service providers and beneficiaries due to power relations… It’s good for us to understand that since many first responders feel like we’re super heroes,” said Nori. “We also discussed what to do to mitigate when it happens, down to the technical and practical details. We must have regulations, focal points, investigations…,” she added.

The PSEA policy and practices are critical to P2TP2A’s work in creating the mechanism to end sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian actors, guarantee institutional and individual accountability, and ensure that allegations are responded in a timely and appropriate manner through capacity building and risk mitigation, which includes ensuring easy access for clients and witnesses to report their cases; providing support to victims and whistleblower protection; and investigating the cases. The training is especially important for managers and caregivers to improve organizational competency, reliability, and trustworthiness.

“We were incredibly pleased to participate in such training. If possible the training should be conducted quarterly, not only once a year because it’s really important for us. RPTRA managers should also take part in this training because they deal with the community, especially children… so that there will be no more harassment, abuse, or exploitation,” Wiwik said. 

Now, P2TP2A Jakarta’s focus is on preventing similar cases from happening again in the future. “We have to be more selective in the recruitment process. We need to make sure we know their perspectives and understanding of gender-based violence… And first and foremost, we need to know their integrity,” Nori said. 

After careful recruitment of officers, evaluation and capacity building are further required. “We conduct evaluation periodically, and provide capacity building for our officers to expand their knowledge and skills in handling cases of violence… The MOWECP has released a circular letter, an instruction with code of ethics on child protection. We always tell them that providing the best services for victims of violence is our priority,” Wiwik explained. 

Wiwik also recognizes the critical need to conduct prevention on a much larger scale. “As long as there is power relations between men and women, it seems that violence will continue to take place. I hope that the Jakarta provincial government can provide a budget for preventive socialization through schools, work places, the public… and involve the community. People have to care and we have to make people care about it,” she asserted.

 

Dian Agustino

Communications Officer

UNFPA Indonesia