After sexual assault, this former aid worker found little help from UN

Mar 8, 2018

Editor's note: This piece's author, Amy Costello, is reporting on aid workers' experiences with sexual harassment and abuse. She would like to hear from you. Call us at 857-285-4157 and leave a confidential message. 

Shannon Mouillesseaux was violently assaulted a decade ago in Sri Lanka while working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The attack itself was deeply traumatic. But Mouillesseaux says the way she was treated by UNHCR in the aftermath was even more damaging.

“If you describe yourself as the leader in women’s rights and human rights, but then you scoff at individuals who have experienced similar incidents — and diminish their experience — or act as if it wasn’t a big deal, there’s one word for that, and it’s called ‘hypocrisy,’” says Mouillesseaux, who signed an open letter Thursday from more than 1,000 female aid workers calling on the sector to reform how it handles sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse. 

Related: The Oxfam scandal shows that reform is needed in the humanitarian aid sector

Mouillesseaux’s home in upstate New York is filled with reminders of her love for her work with refugees and the internally displaced. Photos from those days line the walls.

She stops before a snapshot of a Congolese refugee boy and explains how she had taught him to call her by her first name rather than by the Kiswahili term, mzungu, which is often used to describe white people.

“So, they would come running towards the car yelling, ‘Shannnananna, Shannananna!’” she says with a smile. Then, she recalls how a colleague in Burundi once said to her, “You know, I worked in UNHCR for over 25 years, and I’ve never seen this kind of reception that you get every single time you come to the camp.” Mouillesseaux explains that she had very close relationships with the refugees with whom she worked.

One of the most important things to understand about Mouillesseaux and her yearslong quest for justice from the UNHCR is that her work was a calling. “For so many people in our world, a job is a job,” she says. “But for me, I remember waking up every single morning when I was working directly with refugees, thinking to myself, ‘I love my job.’”

All told, Mouillesseaux worked for the UNHCR for a decade. But one night her life — and her beloved career — was torn apart within about 45 minutes.

It was May 2009, and Mouillesseaux had been working in Sri Lanka for about eight months. It was time for her to take what UNHCR calls mandatory rest and recuperation (R&R). International staff working in places deemed dangerous were generally required to take a week off every six weeks, depending on where they were stationed and the safety hazards.

“The idea is that you can step away from hearing the stories that you're hearing, from seeing the things you're seeing, and have a moment to go to the beach somewhere, to relax somewhere, to take your mind off things, so that you can come back and return to work,” she explains.

Mouillesseaux headed off as required and planned to work on a book she was writing. She chose a boutique hotel in the south of Sri Lanka, three hours away. She quickly realized there were no other tourists there.

“I remember being very happy about that because I thought, ‘This is perfect for my writing. I have the pool to myself, I have the view of the beach, and I just have people here taking care of me while I write.’” 

One day, as Mouillesseaux was writing in her hotel room with the view of the beach she saw a man standing outside, his head appearing just above the sandy slope on the horizon. He was staring at her. She thought he would stop once she made eye contact with him, but he didn’t. He kept staring.

“I thought, ‘Well, that's really strange.’”

Mouillesseaux decided to shut and lock the doors and carried on with her writing. Then the power went out. The hotel staff said they didn’t have a generator, so she went to bed early.

She woke up around 1 a.m. to someone knocking on her door, and she instantly thought of the man who had been watching her. The person at the door claimed to be security. “You need to open up the door!” he said. Mouillesseaux lay there thinking he would go away if she just stayed quiet and didn’t answer. “But he kept insisting,” she recalls.

Afraid, Mouillesseaux used her cellphone to call the hotel manager. He said he was 30 minutes away, and he couldn’t get through to the hotel’s security guard. The man continued to knock.

“Now, I realize that this is getting serious because I can see flashlights...all around the perimeter. And so they had clearly gotten in through the gate,” she says. “So, at this point, I knew that I was in trouble.”

Mouillesseaux looked for something protect herself and only found a nail file. The men began to kick the door down. “At that moment, adrenaline kicked in, and I just went over to the door as they're kicking it down and stood there ready to attack,” she says. She began to try to fight them. “They're all hooded and masked and wearing black military boots and military dungarees,” she says. “They just began attacking me. I tried to defend myself as much as I could. At that point, I still believed I was capable of fighting a group of men. And I recognized I was losing.”

A man with huge arms pressed a cloth against Mouillesseaux’s nose and mouth. It reeked of chemicals. She thought she would be killed. “But I was able — while this huge arm is covering my face and my neck — to maneuver my chin enough that I could get a little gasp of air. And I said, ‘Look, I work for the UN. I'm from the US, and I think you're going to have [a] lot more issues if you cause me grave harm.”

Mouillesseaux described being forcibly kissed and sexually penetrated.

“After that piece of it, they just abruptly left,” she says. “And then suddenly, I'm sitting there in this villa — and even today, just picturing that sense of isolation and loneliness — the doors are kicked down, and my stuff is everywhere. And I'm just looking at my body. It doesn't even feel like yourself. I don't know how else to describe it.”

Mouillesseaux called the UNHCR representative on call for emergencies that night. She says the woman was nice. “But unfortunately, there is not proper training, and her response was instantly, ‘What were you wearing? And were you out drinking?’” Mouillesseaux answered those questions and asked if someone could be sent to her aid as quickly as possible. “I'm still scared for my life,” she told her colleague, adding, “I'm afraid that these men might come back and find me.” 

The UNHCR representative said she didn't know the protocol and was uncertain whether she could send anyone to help Mouillesseaux right away — in the middle of the night — because the incident occured outside working hours. Mouillesseaux said she didn’t care if UNHCR fired her tomorrow: The woman was obliged to send someone. “I want to be saved. I don't want to be murdered,” she pleaded with her. “So, I'd like you to send someone.” To which the woman replied, “Well, I really don't know that I can do that,” Mouillesseaux recalls. 

The hotel manager then showed up and took Mouillesseaux to a sister hotel, where she was put in what she describes as a huge, isolated room; it was the only one in that part of the hotel. She remembers that there were several windows, which scared her even more. She sat and rocked back and forth, watching the windows, for seven hours.

Then, she finally heard the familiar sound of a UN Land Cruiser.

“I was elated. I can't even find the words to describe the excitement of knowing that someone had finally come to rescue me,” she says. She ran to the window and looked down, eager to see which woman the UNHCR had sent to comfort her. “I look in the car, and completely in disbelief, all they had sent was a male Sri Lankan driver.”

Mouillesseaux says the driver was ill-equipped to deal with someone experiencing trauma, but she remains grateful that he did what he could. He accompanied her to the police station, where she filed a report, and the to a forensic lab for a rape exam, which was conducted by two male doctors.

Then UNHCR told Mouillesseaux she needed to stay in town another night so that she could go to court the next day. She says there was no way she could cope with that and told the driver to take her three hours to the capital, Colombo, that night, where she had friends.

The next day, Mouillesseaux had to go back south for the court appearance. A friend from the office volunteered to take time off to accompany her.

But about an hour into the drive, Mouillesseaux’s friend received a call on her cellphone saying she was not allowed to go to court and that she needed to get out of the car and take a taxi back to the UNHCR office. “So, she left,” Mouillesseaux says. “And suddenly, there I am again, heading back alone with a male driver.”

All Mouillesseaux wanted at that stage was to go back to the US. But it took UNHCR a week to get her out of Sri Lanka. She spent her days crying in the office. Some colleagues showed concern, but others asked her to be quiet or go cry elsewhere. A supervisor suggested Mouillesseaux just head to the beach for the weekend and return to work on Monday.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not. I'm going home to be with my family and people who I feel supported by.’”

UNHCR offered to fly Mouillesseaux to their regional office in Thailand, where they had a medical team that could help. But she insisted on going home and says she had to pay for most of the ticket herself.

She ended up taking five months of paid medical leave as she sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. By that point, her original Sri Lanka contract ended, and since she didn’t have another one lined up, Mouillesseaux was told her relationship with UNHCR was over.

“To me, this was a huge injustice,” she says. “Here I was, having worked for the organization and really felt I was doing a good job. That then the response from the organization — my own employer — would be, ‘Well, good luck with the rest of your career.’ It's an incredibly callous response.”

Mouillesseaux had a friend at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva who told her there was a position open there for an editor. Mouillesseaux took it.

“I really felt compelled to show up at headquarters and knock on what I viewed as all the right doors,” she explains. “To be able to say, ‘Hey, in my case, something didn't go quite the way one would expect. Let's see what we can do to improve it for others.’”

One group she visited was the UNHCR’s staff legal section, and she began telling them about what had occurred. “They said, ‘Oh, we don't have any record of this.’ And I said, 'What do you mean, you don't have any record of this?'” Then Mouillesseaux realized, “No one at headquarters has ever even learned that one of their staff in the field has nearly been murdered.”

Mouillesseaux went on to file a claim with the UN for a service-incurred injury, seeking compensation for medical expenses and therapy bills that were not covered by her insurance. “The first response was negative, stating that they did not feel that my claim was deserving of compensation because they viewed it as [that] I was not performing official duties” at the time of the assault.

Mouillesseaux insists to this day she was following company procedure when she was assaulted. But after five years of appeals, the UN gave a final denial of her claim, saying the attack was “not service incurred or sufficiently related to the performance of her official duties.”

Aside from this protracted battle about her own case, Mouillesseaux was waging a much larger one inside headquarters. She wanted to fix the system not just for herself, but for other survivors. Word began to spread.

“People knew what I was working on and started connecting me to more and more survivors,” she says. She began to realize her situation was not unique. “There was a complete and utter lack of support and lack of training and grave [insensitivity] around all of these traumatic incidents that had occurred,” she says. “Whether it's bombing, kidnappings or assaults and trying to determine how can we change that culture so that it's not this cowboy mentality of, ‘You should just be able to return to work! And if you want this kind of job, if you want to be doing humanitarian work, understand that this might happen, and if you can't take it, go home!’”

Mouillesseaux decided to form a UNHCR support network for survivors of critical incidents. She was given five months’ salary to get the program, iSurvived, off the ground, which would ideally reach more than 10,000 workers in 130 nations across the globe.

“It was really on me, one person for 10,000 people, to provide that support, which I think is pretty appalling,” she says, wondering if they were just doing it to appease her.

After Mouillesseaux left UNHCR headquarters, she found out that iSurvived had fizzled. One of her more enduring contributions, however, was helping UNHCR institute standard operating procedures outlining how to respond when staffers are harmed on the job, including in sexual assault incidents.

Almost a decade has passed since Mouillesseaux’s assault, and she is not convinced that UNHCR would handle her case much differently today. “I think there might be greater fear of publicity because there's been so much attention on it,” she says, referring to the #MeToo movement and recent scrutiny of sexual abuse and harassment in the aid sector.

She also says the organization has put in some measures now, and she thinks there is greater recognition about the need to care for staff in the wake of critical incidents like hers. However, based on Mouillesseaux's contact with more recent survivors, she says, “I don't think it's in place enough that it's actually effectively working. And I don't think it would be that drastically different from the response that I had.”

Dubravka Suzic, chief of UNHCR’s staff welfare section, supervised Mouillesseaux after her assault when they both worked in Geneva. That Mouillesseaux was left alone for seven hours after the attack, and only picked up by a male driver, Suzic says, was not protocol. She also says Mouillesseaux's friend should have been allowed to accompany her to court: Best practice is for the survivor to have someone at their side whom he or she “feels comfortable with and that could actually support the survivor through these different protocols and procedures.”

In Mouillesseaux’s case, Suzic says there was a lack of communication between Sri Lanka and headquarters in Geneva, as well as a basic lack of sensitivity. “We do regret very much — not only the incident, but also the follow-up that was quite amiss, quite lacking, in the empathetic response,” she said when reached by phone in Myanmar. “Certainly, inappropriate comments were made, so that did not help,” she added. “That certainly is not the response that we would have hoped to have then. Today, I think things are different, and certainly, I would hope this would not repeat.”

But there is one thing that would be the same Mouillesseaux's assault were to happen today. She likely still wouldn't be entitled to compensation under the UN’s policy because those on mandated breaks are not considered to be performing official duties.

On Wednesday, the UNHCR said in writing that the policy changed in January 2017 so that injuries sustained while on R&R would be covered.

But a closer look at the policy reveals that the UN provides compensation for death, injury or illness for those who are traveling to their R&R destinations, but does not cover incidents during R&R breaks, such as what happened to Mouillesseaux that night in Sri Lanka.

From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI