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A victim-centred approach

WARNING: the video above may be considered disturbing by some viewers and may trigger emotional distress.

This video contains testimonies of victims and was developed as an initiative of the High Commissioner IASC Championship on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment. The video is used as part of an exercise to prompt discussion and dialogue around sexual misconduct and workplace culture.

UNHCR is committed to taking all necessary action to prevent and respond decisively to sexual misconduct and to put the protection, rights and dignity of refugee-victims and staff-victims at the forefront.

In December 2020, the Organization adopted a Policy on a victim-centred approach in UNHCR’s response to sexual misconduct – the first of its kind in the UN system. It focuses on ensuring the safety, rights, well-being and expressed needs and choices of victims/survivors when responding to sexual misconduct.

Putting victims at the centre of our efforts is an essential pillar in our efforts to tackle sexual misconduct. It is critical to ensure they feel safe and free to speak up and know where to seek advice and help. It also means we listen to them and provide support and assistance safely and sensitively, informed by their needs.

Sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) represent a grave breach of trust and of the right to safety, security and dignity of affected communities. Sexual harassment (SH) undermines the right of personnel to be safe and treated with dignity and respect in the workplace and in connection with work.

A victim-centred approach is a way of engaging with victims that prioritizes listening, avoids re-traumatization, and systematically focuses on their safety, rights, well-being, expressed needs and choices. The purpose is to give back as much control to victims as feasible and ensure the empathetic delivery of services in a non-judgmental manner.

A victim-centred approach in action

Since UNHCR adopted a policy on a victim-centred approach in addressing sexual misconduct in 2020, a coordinated effort has been underway to operationalize its ten fundamental principles, which aim to place the needs and wishes of victims at the centre of all prevention and response efforts. To support the implementation of the policy, relevant UNHCR divisions and entities have worked to define and clarify roles and responsibilities under the policy, including through the development of Standard Operating Procedures on how to implement a Victim-Centred Approach in their specific processes and the integration of concepts and principles of the policy into different thematic trainings carried out across the organization. 

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Victim Care Team

Victims of sexual harassment have access to specialized support through the Victim Care Team. UNHCR’s Victim Care Officers are clinical psychologists who provide psychosocial support and confidential guidance on processes and services and accompany victims through the process to help assess risks and individual needs and support in coordinating the necessary actions.

Victims can contact the Victim Care Officers directly for support. Still, if they disclose their experience to someone else, the support of the Victim Care Officer is automatically offered to victims,  shifting the onus from the individual to the organization. Victims are in control of how and when they engage with the Victim Care Officers.

Victim Care Officers also provide guidance to witnesses and advice to managers on support and risk mitigation for sexual harassment.


Consultations with victims on tackling sexual harassment

In late 2022, UNHCR published a summary of a study commissioned by the University of Glasgow to better understand the experience of UNHCR personnel who disclosed or reported sexual harassment in the workplace. The findings have been used to help improve the experience of victims, enhance the management of resolution processes, and strengthen organizational systems and processes to meet the needs of victims of sexual harassment.

UNHCR set up an Informal Victim Reference Group to carry out regular consultations with victims of sexual harassment to integrate their perspectives into organizational decision-making on prevention and response to sexual harassment. This helps ensure the system works effectively and responds appropriately to victims’ needs. 

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An innovative tool to support victims of sexual harassment called NotOnlyMe was launched in 2023. The tool is a confidential mechanism for a victim to record their experience of sexual harassment. It allows them to submit it to a secure and encrypted online matching escrow system that anonymously alerts them if someone else has recorded their harasser.

It includes a function that allows the user to anonymously chat with UNHCR’s Victim Care Officer confidentially.  

Experience with such tools has shown that victims of sexual harassment are more likely to come forward for support and to report if they know that the person who sexually harassed them harassed others.


Working with the field

A key to tracking progress and identifying areas where UNHCR efforts are victim-centred and practical is through organized and consistent dialogue with UNHCR’s PSEA focal points and Peer Advisors. With focal points in every Bureaux and operation worldwide, they provide a practical temperature check on progress and setbacks.

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They can gauge what works and doesn’t within the nuanced context of their operations. Based on regular feedback, the PSEA/SH team can identify trends in progress and challenges, tailor support and adapt tools to suit better the different needs defined by the field and respond to identified gaps.

UNHCR’s global network of 400 peer advisors also provides critical support in tackling sexual harassment in operations, particularly in preventing and mitigating tensions and grievances, supporting colleagues, and promoting better workplaces.

A network of 400 PSEA focal points with specific responsibilities related to protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, including helping refugee victims access support resources and carrying out training and awareness-raising activities. Their presence across 132 countries is critical in helping identify and support victims.