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Oxfam Chief Asks Forgiveness For Sexual Exploitation By Aid Workers

Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima speaks at a forum at the World Bank Spring Meetings in 2016.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima speaks at a forum at the World Bank Spring Meetings in 2016.

The head of Oxfam says the humanitarian group will appoint an independent commission to investigate claims that its staff engaged in sexual exploitation while working in disaster zones.

In an interview with the BBC, Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said the commission would "do justice" and "atone for the past."

"I'm appointing a high-level, independent commission that will look into our culture and our practices and make recommendations to make us stronger at protecting our people," she told the BBC.

The London Times revealed the allegations in a report last week. It accused the U.K.-based charity of covering up an internal inquiry finding that the country director for Chad, Roland van Hauwermeiren, and members of his staff had paid prostitutes for sex in the African country. Similar accusations emerged after van Hauwermeiren and his team were reassigned to Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake there.

Earlier this week, Byanyima's deputy, Penny Lawrence, resigned over the scandal, acknowledging that she was "ashamed" that such behavior had taken place while she was program director for the organization.

In the interview that aired Friday, Byanyima said Oxfam would "create a vetting system."

"I'm really inviting anyone who has been a victim of abuse by anyone in our organization to come forward. I'm here for all the women who have been abused. I want them to come forward and for justice to be done for them," she said.

Byanyima, who is Ugandan, offered an apology in her native Luganda language. According to a BBC translation, she asked, "From the bottom of my heart, forgive us, forgive Oxfam."

As we reported earlier, the scandal has led to calls in the U.K. and EU to cut funding for Oxfam, which gets nearly $85 million annually from those sources.

Bochitt Edmond, Haiti's ambassador to the U.K., appearing on NPR's Morning Edition earlier this week, accused Oxfam of "a culture of coverup."

He said his government "is willing and getting ready to take legal action against individuals" involved in the scandal — possibly including van Hauwermeiren and members of his staff.

"We are very serious about it and we believe an example has to be set," Edmond said.

In an open letter on Thursday, van Hauwemeiren, a 68-year-old Dutch citizen, denied the allegations of sexual exploitation, saying he had "intimate relations" with a woman in Haiti during his tenure there, but that she was "not a prostitute. I never gave her money."

Oxfam has confirmed that it dismissed van Hauwemeiren last year over the allegations; however, he said in the Dutch-language letter that he left of his own accord after failing to control rumors of sex scandals.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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