Sexual harassment issue ‘on the back burner’ at UN, ex-official says


Purna Sen, the former executive who was in charge of tackling sexual harassment at the UN said she fears the issue has now been “put on the back burner”as there is “too much onus on protecting those in power.”

Sen was appointed at UN Women in 2018 to address harassment, assault and discrimination at work, including within the organisation. She left the position in August after being told her role would not be renewed.

Now, Sen says victims are struggling to have their cases heard because the UN has a “massive” trust problem.

“I have grave concerns about the direction of travel that was so clear in previous years. There was a big drive to tackle sexual harassment in 2017-2018, but these issues appear to have been put on the back burner,” she said.

“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.”

“The system lacks independence and there is a real problem with accounts being taken seriously. Managers are instructed to start with the presumption of innocence but this has translated to a starting position of distrust of those making complaints.”

While the agency has encouraged the reporting of sexual harassment, Sen said its messaging was not enough. “When victims make disclosures they are often unjustly treated and there is too much onus on protecting those in power.”

She added: “Often those targeted are young or in junior positions, including interns, and they are looking for careers. They do not want to name their abusers for fear – with good reason – their reputations will be trashed and they won’t be able to find a job.”

In one case, she claimed, three young people came to realise they had been sexually harassed by the same colleague but were still unwilling to make an official complaint.

Sen said the UN should have kept a dedicated senior position to oversee complaints.

“It is vital to have an expert in victim-led work who is willing to call out and critique the institution and to risk the ire of colleagues and seniors,” she said.

Sen was appointed as executive coordinator and spokesperson on addressing sexual harassment in April 2018, three months after a Guardian investigation revealed a culture of impunity at the UN.

Dozens of people told of abuse ranging from verbal harassment to rape, and complained the system turned a blind eye.

During 2018, Sen helped to develop a new policy to tackle sexual harassment, investigators were appointed and an events code of conduct was published.

But while there was progress, the changes did not go far enough, said Sen. For example, she said, investigations can take up to three years, leaving all parties in a difficult limbo.

UN Women said it remains fully committed to addressing sexual harassment as a key priority. A spokesperson said: “The former executive coordinator left a strong basis for the work going forward, including ground-breaking publications advocating for victim-focused work”.

The spokesperson said work continues under the leadership of deputy executive director Åsa Regnér, who has a track record of addressing sexual harassment.

They added that an internal taskforce on addressing sexual harassment continues under the executive board. (Source: The Guardian)