The various agencies of the United Nations enjoy great credibility. They are seen as both the authority and last resort on socio-economic ills plaguing not a single country but many countries of the world.
One of these agencies is UNAIDS, tasked with fighting HIV and AIDS. But UNAIDS is facing another organizational battle, one that has been confirmed and condemned by an independent probe last week, which said it suffered from a culture of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power.
As a result of the damning report, executive director Michel Sidibe said he would step down in June, six months before his term ends, “for an orderly transition of leadership.”
“The executive director of the UNAIDS secretariat has created a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority and in his interviews with the panel he accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review,” the report said.
One employee, Martina Brostrom, narrated to CNN how she was assaulted by an assistant general, Luis Lourez, during a conference in Bangkok—and how Sidibe offered to give her a promotion if she dropped her claim. Two other women described similar encounters.
These developments show us that not even the most credible institutions are immune to individuals who misbehave and who act with impunity, and to cultures that tolerate and even enable such behavior. Women who fall victims to men who use their power to get what they want should be encouraged and emboldened to name their attackers. Equally important as getting them to speak out, however, is ensuring that something is done to see the cases through to their just conclusion.
This includes institutionalizing systems for redress and breaking old-boys’ cultures that frustrate the complaints even before they are made.
Institutional leaders, whether they are in government, business, or civil society, play a great role in ending the age-old ills of harassment, discrimination, bullying and abuse. If a leader is first to joke about women, make light of a serious situation, or even pretend as though nothing is happening, then the organization is doomed, the toxic culture will prevail, and victims will have no choice but suffer in silence.