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Monday, Aug 26, 2019

Oxfam announces comprehensive action plan after ‘stain’ of sex scandal

Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima said she has invited anyone who has been a victim of sexual abuse in the organisation to come forward.

world Updated: Feb 17, 2018 13:46 IST

Agence France-Presse, London
People walk past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for people displaced after 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Saturday.
People walk past an Oxfam sign in Corail, a camp for people displaced after 2010 earthquake, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Saturday.(Reuters Photo)

British charity Oxfam on Friday unveiled an action plan to tackle sexual misconduct following the “stain” of a prostitution scandal although the man at the centre of the allegations denied organising orgies.

The charity also said it had agreed with the British government not to apply for any new state funding until it had satisfied demands laid out by International Development secretary Penny Mordaunt.

The aid group said it would create an independent commission which will have the power to access records and interview staff in a bid to stamp out abuse and impose stricter controls on employees.

“We are going to create a vetting system,” Oxfam International’s executive director Winnie Byanyima told the BBC.

“I’m really inviting anyone who has been a victim of abuse by anyone in our organisation to come forward.”

Oxfam will double the number of staff engaged in safeguarding and triple its funding in this area to more than $1 million (800,000 euros), while also increasing investment in gender training.

The new plan comes a week after revelations that Oxfam staff used prostitutes while working in Haiti following a devastating 2010 earthquake and a wave of subsequent allegations of sexual misconduct.

The charity’s deputy chief executive Penny Lawrence has resigned and three Oxfam global ambassadors including South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu have quit their roles as a result of the scandal.

“What happened in Haiti and afterwards is a stain on Oxfam that will shame us for years, and rightly so,” Byanyima said, adding: “From the bottom of my heart, I am asking for forgiveness.”

Before the latest revelations emerged, Oxfam had fired four staff members for gross misconduct and allowed three others to resign following an internal inquiry into what happened in Haiti in 2011.

‘Lies and exaggerations’

But Roland van Hauwermeiren, Oxfam’s director in Haiti at the time and one of the three who resigned from the charity, dismissed the allegations.

“I have never been into a brothel, a nightclub or a bar in that country,” the 68-year-old Belgian national said in a four-page letter published on the website of Belgian VTM News.

“There were numerous men and women who tried to get into my house with all sorts of excuses to demand money, work, or to offer sexual services. But I never gave into these advances,” he said.

Van Hauwermeiren, who has taken part in an internal enquiry at the British charity, said he told Oxfam he had engaged in “intimate relations some three times” at his home.

“This was with an honourable, mature woman, who was not an earthquake victim nor a prostitute. And I did not give her any money,” he said, adding that he was, however, “deeply ashamed” of the liaison.

Speaking to reporters with the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper, who tracked him on the Belgian coast, Van Hauwermeiren said there were “lots of lies and exaggerations” in media reports.

“The hardest thing is that my family has rejected me,” he said.

Global database for hiring

The charity has denied covering up the Haiti affair, which has prompted a drop in donations and led the British government to threaten to cut funds to organisations which try to hide sex scandals.

The government has made three demands of Oxfam: that it produce a plan on how to deal with any forthcoming allegations, that it report any staff members involved in the Haiti scandal and that it fully cooperate with the Haitian authorities.

It has until February 26 to satisfy the demands.

The charity admitted Thursday it rehired one of those sacked in Haiti just months later and is now checking whether any complaints were subsequently made.

The charity on Friday said it was also investigating allegations of sexual misconduct at a hotel in the Philippines after a destructive typhoon in 2013.

Oxfam’s regional director for Asia Lan Mercado earlier this week told the BBC she was aware of cases of sexual abuse involving staff in Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines between 2009 and 2013.

Oxfam has come under fire for failing to inform other aid organisations of the allegations against its staff including Van Hauwermeiren, who went on to work for French charity Action Against Hunger in Bangladesh.

First Published: Feb 17, 2018 13:45 IST

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