#MeToo arrives at World Bank as it publishes Gender-Based Violence Action Plan

27 March 2018

Credit: Wolfmann

In November 2017, the World Bank released a time-bound Action Plan (AP) outlining administrative and operational measures to help prevent and respond to gender-based violence (GBV), including incidences of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in World Bank-financed projects. It included an implementation plan with a timeline and assigned a unit within the Bank responsible for its implementation. The Bank’s press release noted the AP addressed the recommendations of the Global GBV Task Force (TF), which resulted from sexual exploitation and abuse allegations in the Bank-financed Uganda road project (see Observer Spring 2017, Autumn 2017). In the aftermath of the Uganda case, the global development media platform Devex reported in April 2017 that Bank President Jim Yong Kim called GBV a “worldwide epidemic” that “undermines all our work”, and vowed to make preventing GBV a priority during his second term as head of the institution, which began in 2016.

Reflecting the TF’s recommendations, the AP included a section, “mandating Codes of Conduct for civil works contractors in Bank Standard Procurement Documents, with prohibitions against SEA/GBV”, including against sexual activity with under 18-year olds, regardless of the local legal age of consent. Following the TF’s recommendations, the AP ensured that additional resources are made available and established a two-year GBV Prevention and Mitigation Fund. The AP only looked at Bank-funded projects and is not aimed at internal Bank procedures for sexual harassment and abuse.

Separate from the AP, the Bank is in the process of commissioning an external review of its internal processes and procedures, with particular attention to sexual harassment and exploitation inside the Bank, including a review of the Code of Conduct in which the Bank’s commitment to protect staff is included. Anne Quesney of ActionAid UK noted that, “while developing the AP, cases of abuse of power and sexual harassment of staff surfaced within the Bank itself – demonstrating that the problem goes well beyond contractors’ behaviour and illustrating the endemic nature of violence against women and girls across society, providing the Bank with an opportunity to adopt a holistic approach to addressing unequal power structures.”

Now is the ideal moment to examine, spotlight and redress past and present sexual violations in the Bank so that all staff have the safe workplace they deserve!Elaine Zuckerman

Sexual harassment at the World Bank – not a thing of the past

In December 2017, Elaine Zuckerman, of US-based NGO Gender Action and a former Bank staff member, wrote a letter to the World Bank Ombudsman where she spoke out about her own experiences of being sexually assaulted by two male Bank officials in the early 1980s. Her letter recounted that, at the time, she sought “redress from the World Bank Ombudsman”, but was told that “he could do nothing without witnesses” – effectively ending the complaint process. “Without any transparency and accountability, the perpetrators, and other lechers in the Bank … were protected by silence,” the letter noted. Zuckerman wants to “retroactively seek and explore obtaining justice”, and share her experiences “to improve the Bank’s work culture”, stressing that, “Now is the ideal moment to examine, spotlight and redress past and present sexual violations in the Bank so that all staff have the safe workplace they deserve!”

Zuckerman’s letter was followed in February by an article in Washington DC-based newspaper Afro by Faye Williams, of the National Congress of Black Women, criticising the Bank’s lack of action to address internal sexual harassment since the 1992 Stern and 1999 US Congressional reports, which concluded that, “the Bank’s internal justice system that is supposed to protect women from sexual harassment [is] unfit to adjudicate sexual harassment claims.” Williams argued little has changed since the Stern Report identified “a rampant culture of ‘general sexual harassment.’”

As recently as 2016, in DN v. World Bank, the Bank’s Administrative Tribunal reviewed a case involving a male staff member who was dismissed for placing his phone “under the skirt of a female staff member to take inappropriate photographs and/or record a video of her, without her consent.” The tribunal ruled that while, “the Applicant’s misconduct has been established,” it recommended the Bank reinstate him because “termination was significantly disproportionate” to the offence he committed.

While the Bank continues to develop processes to prevent GBV in its operations, it evidently has a long way to go in addressing this issue holistically throughout the institution.