The United Nations—the international body created to address global issues, gender abuses among them—has put the problem of sexual harassment within its own organization on the back burner, driving victims to stay quiet for fear their complaints will be ignored.
Purna Sen, who was appointed at UN Women in 2018 specifically to address harassment, left in August after being told her role would not be renewed. She told the Guardian that there’s “a real problem” of accounts not being taken seriously, and a directive to managers to “start with the presumption of innocence” that has resulted in distrust of those making complaints.
“I am disappointed those who have been abused do not feel the system is there for them and that is born of experience, not conjecture,” she said. “When victims make disclosures they are often unjustly treated and there is too much onus on protecting those in power.”
As in any industry, the victims targeted are often in junior positions or interns, and reluctant to make complaints out of fear that doing so will ruin their careers. In one instance, three such victims came to realize they were being sexually harassed by the same person, but were not willing to make an official complaint.
In a 2018 investigation by the Guardian, 15 UN employees reported having experienced or reported sexual harassment or assault within the previous five years, with offenses ranging from verbal harassment to rape.
Three women who reported sexual harassment or assault, each from different offices, said they’d either been forced from their jobs or threatened with termination.
“If you report it, your career is pretty much over, especially if you’re a consultant,” said one consultant, who said she was harassed by her supervisor while working for the World Food Programme. “It’s like an unsaid thing.”