Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

In accordance with the mission and practice of the Women’s Refugee Commission, Inc. (WRC) and principles of international law and codes of conduct, all national and international WRC representatives, including board members, regular and temporary full- and part-time staff, interns, contractors, partners, sub-awardees, and volunteers, are responsible for promoting respect for fundamental human rights, social justice, human dignity, and respect for the equal rights of men, women, and children. While respecting the dignity and worth of every individual, WRC representatives will treat all persons equally without distinction whatsoever of race, gender, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, language, marital status, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, disability, political conviction, or any other distinguishing feature.

WRC representatives recognize that they have a duty of care to program participants (referred to as beneficiaries by the UN Secretary General and in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s six core principles of its code of conduct referenced below) and a responsibility to ensure that they are treated with dignity and respect and that certain minimum standards of behavior are observed.

Displacement as a result of conflict or natural disaster may lead to an increase in poverty, dependency, and powerlessness. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to sexual violence in crisis settings, although men, boys, and others with intersecting social markers such as disability or gender identity may also be at high risk. The uncertainty in access to, and the unequal distribution of, resources such as food and material goods, can put women, girls, and other marginalized populations at a greater risk of sexual exploitation and abuse and lead to negative coping strategies such as exchanging sex for money or food to survive.[1]

WRC strictly prohibits sexual exploitation and abuse by its representatives and has a zero tolerance policy toward sexual exploitation and abuse. Any allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse must be promptly reported; and alleged victims of sexual exploitation and abuse shall be referred for immediate, professional assistance.

What is Sexual Exploitation and Abuse?

“Sexual exploitation” means any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially, or politically from the sexual exploitation of another. “Sexual abuse” means the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.

Sexual exploitation and abuse can take many forms.[2]

  • Sexual exploitation involves a person demanding sex or sexual favors from someone in a vulnerable position in exchange for money, shelter, firewood or fuel for cooking, food, or other goods or services. Perpetrators can include staff of the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and community-based organizations (CBOs); as well as consultants, interns, volunteers, and contractors; and military personnel.

Sexual abuse is:

  • Threatening or forcing an individual to have sex. This includes rape.
  • The invasion of any part of the body of the victim with a sexual organ; or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body; or against a person incapable of giving genuine consent.
  • Any unwelcome and unwanted sexual advance, unsolicited sexual attention, demand for sexual access or favors, sexual innuendo or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, display of pornographic material, inappropriate touching or gestures, and harassment by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.

WRC rigorously enforces the United Nations (UN) Secretary General’s Bulletin on the Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Beneficiaries as a standard for professional conduct among our staff. [3] Therefore, all representatives of the WRC must concur with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s (IASC’s) six core principles of its code of conduct [4] as listed below and will adhere to preventing sexual exploitation and abuse against Beneficiaries and Persons of Concern.

  1. Sexual exploitation and abuse by humanitarian workers constitute acts of gross misconduct and are therefore grounds for termination of employment.
  2. Sexual activity with children (persons under the age of 18) is prohibited regardless of the age of majority or age of consent locally. Mistaken belief regarding the age of a child is not a defense.
  3. Exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex, including sexual favors or other forms of humiliating, degrading, or exploitative behavior is prohibited. This includes exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries.
  4. Any sexual relationship between those providing humanitarian assistance and protection and a person benefiting from such humanitarian assistance and protection that involves improper use of rank or position is prohibited. Such relationships undermine the credibility and integrity of humanitarian aid work.
  5. Where a humanitarian worker develops concerns or suspicions regarding sexual abuse or exploitation by a fellow worker, whether in the same agency or not, he or she must report such concerns via established agency reporting mechanisms.
  6. Humanitarian workers are obliged to create and maintain an environment which prevents sexual exploitation and abuse and promotes the implementation of their code of conduct. Managers at all levels have particular responsibilities to support and develop systems which maintain this environment.

In addition, the WRC also requires the relevant CBO or international NGO to comply with its standards for preventing sexual exploitation and abuse as a part of all sub-award agreement documents or requires that all organizations being contracted with have their own Codes of Conduct, inclusive of measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, and mechanisms for enforcement.

If you have a complaint about the conduct of a WRC representative or about the work of the organization, or wish to make a report, please contact our anonymous reporting service, Ethics Point. Someone will get in touch with you to follow up.

Contact Information

You can reach EthicsPoint through its website or its mobile app, or, in the United States, by calling a domestic toll-free hotline at 1-844-927-2279.


[1] Paul B. Spiegel, “HIV/AIDS among conflict-affected and displaced populations: dispelling myths and taking action,” Disasters (September 2004).

[2] IASC, Report of the Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Crises (June 2002).

[3] UN, Secretary General’s Bulletin: Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (ST/SGB/2003/13) (October 2003).

[4] IASC, IASC Six Core Principles Relating to Exploitation and Abuse (September 23, 2019).


Updated April 2023