The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief which is now more commonly known as ‘Oxfam’ was founded in Oxford, Britain in 1942. During the height of the Second World War, the then newly-founded committee campaigned relentlessly for food supplies to be sent through a naval blockade to the starving women and children of Nazi-occupied Greece. It’s clear that Oxfam has both a rich and truly successful history in the delivery of emergency relief to vulnerable and ravaged communities and does fantastic work overseas to lessen the impact of both natural and man-made disasters.
The recent scandal, however, concerning the British charity has deeply shocked both British and international communities and rightly so. It has been revealed by the British newspaper, The Times that Roland Van Hauwermeiren, the former Haiti country director of the NGO, allegedly solicited prostitutes at a villa in Haiti following the devastating earthquake of 2010 which had been rented for his use, all made possible by Oxfam through publicly and privately raised funds. An investigation was consequently undertaken in 2011, which realistically should have been the end of the matter. Unfortunately, it was not and Van Hauwermeiren was not the only Oxfam employee caught red-handed.
Oxfam has told the BBC that four members of their staff were dismissed due to misconduct and three others, including Van Hauwermeiren who received an extra month’s pay, were allowed to resign before the end of the investigation. Some say this was done in an effort to ‘hush up’ the story before it made it into mainstream media. The consequences of Oxfam’s inaction are deeply harrowing. According to Sky News, three of the abusers in Oxfam who resigned received favourable references from the charity and then went on to work at various other charitable organisations.
Barbara Stocking, the former head of Oxfam, during an interview with the BBC, contended that the charity did issue press releases at the time and that no cover-up was ever perpetrated or intended. Regardless of whether or not Oxfam was deliberating trying to quell the story, three men went on to work at other charities, leaving vulnerable women open to abuse from their supposed saviours during a time of cataclysmic natural disaster which devastated many communities. The year was 2010 and it was a particularly distressing year for the people of Haiti.
On January the 12th 2010 Haiti was hit by an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 on the Richter scale. According to the Haitian government, 300,000 Haitians were killed that day and during the ensuing aftershocks thousands more were left with life-altering injuries. People’s homes were destroyed and families were viciously torn apart by this natural catastrophe. Needless to say, these thousands of sufferers were left vulnerable and relied heavily on the generosity of international charities to restore some sense of hope to their dire situation.
Haiti’s troubled history is mainly centred around foreign occupation and rule. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on what is now modern day Haiti and from then until the 17th century, Haiti was occupied by the Spanish and its native people, the Arawak were enslaved by the reigning Spaniards. Then a century later the French arrived and the island was split in two. In 1803, the slave armies of Haiti managed to claim victory over the French at the Battle of Vertières and on the 1st of January the following year, Dessalines declared the second republic, and the island was re-named ‘Haiti’. Haiti finally became independent from Spain in 1821. The struggle only ended at this point for the men of Haiti as the women of the island continued to fight for the right to vote which was eventually granted in 1950, but due to political corruption it was not until 1990 that women could freely vote in the country. Having just reviewed their history, it should certainly be easy for us then to sympathise with a nation whose people also had to fight for their independence and continue their struggle to this day.
Haitian women, however, have received little sympathy even from a supposedly charitable workforce in Oxfam which is now facing another bout of allegations. While it is apparently true that Oxfam publicly reported some “serious misconduct” in the organisation, they did not give full details of the abuses. They told the Charity Commission in the UK that they were investigating various incidents of sexual misconduct and bullying but never revealed the full details to the regulating organisation. According to the British newspaper, the Observer, Oxfam’s staff also solicited prostitutes while on a mission to Chad in 2006. These maniacal abuses of power are not unique to Oxfam, however, the Sunday Times has stated that a staggering one hundred and twenty personnel from various British charities have been accused of sexual abuse in the past twelve months.
Sexual misconduct and the exploitation of power certainly seem to be the major undercurrents of the past five months. It certainly leaves one to question whether there is any decency left in the world at all and these scandals are not just an external threat for the Irish people, they are, in fact, at our very doorstep. It seems that this tyrannical abuse of power has even seeped into the world of Irish sports. A young woman from Belfast Ravenhill Road alleges she was raped by the rugby stars Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding in June 2016. The trial, which has been running for a fortnight, continues this week and is sure to attract yet more attention to the manipulation of defenceless young women which can only be a positive thing.
Modern society has a lot to answer for, the continued and thus far, sustained abuse of women in particular must end. Thankfully it has been made publicly known that this form of abuse from a minority of men is no longer acceptable. Although trial by Twitter certainly has its faults, it has gotten the message out there that women will no longer sit idly by and allow their mothers, aunts, sisters and daughters to receive abuse from any gender. Regrettably, it is mainly my gender’s fault that one hundred years after the suffragette movement modern-day women in both the developed and developing world still have a long road ahead of them in the fight against gender-specific discrimination and exploitation.
Mark Jackson – Features Writer