Oxfam scandal - not surprised

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I know this one's a bit heavy, but it's important, so I wanted to say something.

People seem surprised. Over the past decades, we've had different waves of 'surprise' as historic scandals and secrets burst open different institutions.  

Scandals in children's homes. Abuse in the church. In care homes. Jimmy Saville. Even football coaches. Public schools. The House of Commons.

Weinstein. What even film stars? (Really? The world thought that was an unlikely arena for abuse - come on!)

And the revelation in 2018 that there is even sexual abuse in international development, now that is really shocking. Surely not abuse where people are working away from the cultural constraints of their home context and their families, and where there is a huge imbalance of income and power? No, that has never been a recipe for sexual exploitation, not at all. And where there are high stakes not to expose abusers, like loss of donor funding. 

It starts with one revelation in a new sector, and the floodgates open. Serious incident reporting to the Charities Commission has doubled since the Oxfam scandal broke. As though some kind of invisible limit has been crossed - now that it is conceptually possible that abuse could even occur in the charity sector, it is safer to come forward. Or is it the realisation that the impact on public reputation is much worse if organisations cover up, than if they address abuse as and when it is reported?

We need to get over the surprise, and start acting. Where there are people, there can be abuse. The quicker we acknowledge that abuse is everywhere, the better. No sector is immune. 

As a fresh graduate, I was working in Tanzania for a youth reproductive health programme. Every now and then I would hear something that I didn't like the sound of. I became demotivated and thought about leaving. I raised my concerns with managers a few times, felt reassured in some way, and carried on. But outrageous behaviour continued to escalate.

I was asked to join an ethics committee tasked to investigate. We interviewed dozens of volunteers and employees. Given the chance, they spoke. Our little team listened to hours of jaw-dropping revelations. I had malaria (mildly) and was roused from my bed to conduct the final interview before volunteers dispersed for the end of the programme. 

All but one of the male Tanzanian employees faced disciplinary procedures. The British men in charge had been complicit, as had I, for not speaking up stronger first time round. In our defence, none of us knew the full scale of the problems until we investigated. But we had known something was seriously wrong and taken too long to act.  By the way - don't draw any conclusions about the nationalities - as we know, it also works the other way around. 

I think it was in Spotlight - one of the many documentaries about abuse in the Catholic church - that someone said - it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one. 

I remember watching the emotional revelations from footballers in 2016 thinking - now something will change. Seeing these big tough guys crying on TV, people will understand the lifelong damage from sexual abuse. They'll understand that this is not 'jumping on the bandwagon'. Those men were really brave. But I bet they didn't feel it, it must have felt horrible. Disclosure can be diminishing not empowering - which is just one of the many reasons it's so hard to speak out.

So when I read about this scandal, I wasn't surprised. Not because I don't have faith in Oxfam, or in international charities - I do. (I'll write about that another day).

But if we're surprised that abuse is still happening, then we're missing the point. And if we're surprised that it's still so hard to report abuse in 2018, then we haven't paid enough attention to what survivors of abuse are saying and the patterns of tacit acceptance in historic cases.  We need to remember what we already know. Abuse is all about power and there are very strong forces at play to prevent reporting and to prevent action on abuse. As much for victims as for everyone else who suspects something is going on or those to whom abuse is reported. Those people sometimes have to risk their jobs and reputation to stand up for what is right. Oxfam know this. It's complicated and difficult. The first thing we can do is stop being shocked and acknowledge this reality, in order to create a more supportive environment to challenge abuse.