Dr. Natalia Kanem's reflections on IASC PSEA Championship

Published Date
Photo of Notes from survivors, a list of suggestions on how to reduce the risk of sexual abuse and exploitation
Survivors list on how to
reduce the risk of SAE
© UNFPA DRC/Daisy Leoncio

In January 2021, UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem became the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Champion on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment (PSEAH). During the year-long championship, she met with survivors and service providers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan and advanced progress to end sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. As her championship concludes, she reflects on what she has seen over the past year.  

What lessons can we learn from your tenure as IASC Champion?

Listen to women and the solutions they bring to the table. It is one of our greatest opportunities.

When I met with women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not only did they share their concerns – for example, the dangers they face when accessing water – they came with a list of proposed solutions. They refuse to be victims. Oftentimes, they are their best advocates and we do ourselves a service by letting them lead. 

This is part of a survivor-centered approach – listening to women, girls and other community members, all those we serve, and working together as partners to strengthen protection from sexual exploitation and abuse.

What surprised you during the course of your championship?

The incredible resilience of survivors and of those providing the services they so desperately need, even amid a global pandemic.

I visited the Panzi Hospital, run by Nobel laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege, world-renowned for his life-saving work with survivors of sexual violence in conflict. I saw the medical attention and psychosocial support that survivors receive and the support that they provide to one another. 

I was amazed and uplifted by the strength of these women, standing up for their rights and the justice they deserve. Despite the danger they face, they speak their truth every day and will not be silenced.

What do you see changing?

I believe that we can rectify this giant wrong, in our generation. In the past, there has been a culture of silence and a fear of retaliation surrounding sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by humanitarian workers, the vast majority of whom do a tremendous job securing the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable people all over the world.

Dr. Natalia Kanem visiting Panzi Hospital, founded by surgeon, human rights activist and Nobel laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege. © UNFPA DRC/Luis Tato
Dr. Kanem at Panzi Hospital
© UNFPA DRC/Luis Tato

Turning a blind eye causes profound damage and is no longer acceptable. There is greater awareness of the problem now and a greater willingness to call out this betrayal of those we serve. Communities, UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have all become more outspoken. This shift in mindset – from uncomfortable complacency to one where we are all crusaders against sexual exploitation and abuse – is what will ultimately help us conquer this stain on our common humanity. 

What is your advice to the next Champion on PSEAH?

This championship has provided me with so many opportunities to listen, to learn and to grow. I wish the same for my successor. If there is one thing I can impart, it’s that it is not enough to listen and nod politely. In order to have an impact, we must involve community and women-led organizations, and help them guide us.

Although my championship has ended, I will continue to be a vocal, visible and bold partner in collective efforts to stamp out sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. I look forward to working with the next Champion to ensure accountability to the people we serve and translate their demands into action.