No More Hiding for Sexual Abusers in Civil Society 

October 24th, 2019  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  5 minute read
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“We were reluctant to make formal complaints because we knew he was a high-profile person who has very close relationships with famous [civil society] leaders and development partners.”

one of the survivors of sexual assault

The #metoo movement that has emboldened survivors of sexual assault to come out and speak out about the abuse they have experienced is still reverberating around the world, as the latest reports regarding Mercy Corps have demonstrated. However, it is not limited to international contexts, and the abuse that goes on in civil society locally, including Myanmar[1], must also be exposed and addressed.

The revelations regarding the international humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps, demonstrate the depth of abuse that powerful people can get away with. One of the co-founders, Ellsworth Humphrey, sexually abused his young daughter for several years during the 1970s, causing long-term and irrevocable damage to the survivor. Yet when she became an adult and made Mercy Corps aware of the nature of the abuse she suffered in the early 1990s, their response was both totally inadequate and also unsurprising. They deemed the allegations to be ‘insufficient,’ and Ellsworth Humphrey continued to play an active and prominent role in the organization as Senior Vice President until his death. Only now has the abuse and Mercy Corps’ mishandling of the case come to public light, with the organization finally facing consequences, 25 years after they first knew of the allegations.

This case demonstrates how much powerful men can get away with and the institutional denials and cover-ups that protect such people. Mercy Corps is not the only case globally, as the revelations about the use of sex workers in Haiti by senior Oxfam staff and allegations of sexual harassment at Save the Children reveal a sector-wide problem. Local organizations are also not immune to sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups, as civil society within Myanmar can testify.

One high profile case within the country that has recently been exposed is that of Charity-Orientated Myanmar and its founder, Chan Nyein Aung, who sexually abused female members of the organization for several years. One of the survivors, Zinmin Thu, who has bravely come forward to report the abuse she suffered at his hands, reported how when she tried to resign, Chan Nyein Aung threatened to blacklist her from ever working with civil society again. She is one of six women who have come forward that have detailed the “unwanted touching or groping, four allegations of unwanted kissing, and two allegations of attempted rape.” He was able to hide for so long behind the image of himself and the organization that he founded as a prominent defender and promoter of women’s rights and participation in public life.

There are several parallels with the cases of Mercy Corps, Oxfam, and other international organizations. These include cover-ups at the organizational level, the protracted timeframe of abuse and subsequent impunity, and being able to hide behind a reputation of ‘doing good.’ As one of the survivors who has come forward stated, “We were reluctant to make formal complaints because we knew he was a high-profile person who has very close relationships with famous [civil society] leaders and development partners.” Now they have come forward, these women must be supported. Truly independent, third party investigations are needed in cases such as this, not cover-ups in which people who are close to, or friendly with the alleged perpetrator whitewash the abuse and ultimately vindicate the abuser while further victimizing those who suffer.

Too often men in powerful positions working in a context in which they are seen to be ‘doing good’ get away with the abuse and exploitation of others, especially women. Working in contexts that are often informal means that they escape scrutiny, or the mechanisms and protections that might be in place in other sectors. This is an issue that is widespread and we, as civil society, should not take a ‘holier than thou’ attitude but must work tirelessly to expose abuse within our ranks and pursue accountability in the same way we pursue accountability for all forms of human rights violations.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”