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Updated 10 May 2018

Sex scandal rocks UNAIDS: 'Executive Director must step down'

Following a sexual harassment investigation at UNAIDS gone wrong, 23 leading women activists now believe that the executive director cannot be trusted to lead the world’s foremost agency fighting Aids.

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We write as African woman who have been involved in work to end Aids and gender-based violence in the last few decades. 

As activists, and women who are deeply committed to both ending Aids and ending gender injustice, we have been saddened and angered to hear of the various cases of sexual harassment that have allegedly taken place at UNAIDS.  Many of us have worked closely with UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé over the years, and with staff and colleagues across the agency in various offices on the African continent, as well as in Geneva.  

'We demand action'

We write now to express our view that Michel has mishandled the cases in a manner that is so profound that he must now step down.  If he does not step down, the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) will have to make the decision to terminate his contract. 

Two weeks ago, Vuyiseka Dubula met Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, in his office in Geneva as part of a visit to key organisations based in the city. For most of the hour-long meeting, Vuyiseka and Michel discussed the case of alleged sexual harassment against his former colleague UNAIDS Assistant Secretary General Luiz Loures and how Michel responded to it.

Based on her report from that meeting, we write to express our concern and demand action from the UNAIDS PCB. 

We are not satisfied with the outcomes of that meeting.  We remain deeply concerned that Michel interfered in the 14-month investigation – a length of time that in itself shows a lack of seriousness. We do not understand why Michel urged Martina Brostrom (the complainant) to drop the complaint.

We still don’t understand why in a speech to UNAIDS staff members, Michel clearly took the side of Loures, and was critical of the women who dared speak out.

Suggestive messages and overtures

The day after the meeting with Michel, Vuyiseka received a WhatsApp message from Erasmus Morah, formerly the UNAIDS office in South Africa, now moved to UNAIDS Nigeria. “Apart from calling Vuyiseka 'fair lady' in his message, he urged her to help 'protect Michel'."

That Erasmus and others are scrambling to protect Michel, in a way they never did for Brostrom, is emblematic of the rot at UNAIDS.

That specifically Erasmus should come to Michel’s defence is also somehow emblematic of the state of UNAIDS. Many activists have had to deal with suggestive messages and overtures from Erasmus in the past. A number of women we have spoken to have noted that Erasmus has asked to meet male colleagues at the office, but has asked them [the women] to meet him at his hotel.

Like Loures, he seems to believe he has a right to inappropriate behaviour. 

We will tell these stories about Erasmus, we will point out the culture of protection and impunity, and we will do so as part of a global movement of women who have had enough of institutions that try to deal with these matters informally. 

Blaming the victims

These stories are echoed by women who worked for or with UNAIDS in Geneva and across the world. They are not a few isolated incidents, people like Loures and Erasmus thrive in UNAIDS. Men like these, and the culture of impunity at UNAIDS thrive because men in power like Michel do nothing when women complain about people like Loures. When women complained to Michel about Loures years ago, he thought about how best to "manage" the situation, instead of doing what was right.

The culture of impunity thrives because at UNAIDS sexual harassment complaints take ages to resolve. It thrives because Michel tried to convince Brostrom to drop her complaint. It thrives because Michel, the head of UNAIDS, blames the victims in staff meetings.

It is patently clear that Michel Sidibe and his leadership style are at the core of what has gone wrong at UNAIDS. Yet, Michel has not taken any meaningful responsibility for his part in it. Instead, he has tried to suggest that the problem is one of process – and thus one that can be fixed by five-point-plans and a gender plan 2018 – 2023. Apparently, Michel now also thinks it is appropriate to waste UNAIDS funds on hiring McKinsey to help him paper over UNAIDS’s leadership failings. We strongly disagree with this misuse of funds. 

If Michel and his allies in UNAIDS leadership really cared about UNAIDS they would have from the outset been much more open about how they handled Loures’s case, as many of us had advised Michel. They  would have instituted a truly independent investigation. They would certainly not have stood for, or been party to,  the unacceptable victim-blaming in UNAIDS staff meetings.

'Empty PR'

What some cocooned leaders in Geneva, and even some influential scientists and civil society representatives with influence at UNAIDS clearly still don’t understand is that simply too many lines have already been crossed by the mismanagement of sexual harassment at the agency. In the #MeToo era we will no longer settle for “damage control” and empty PR. We are frankly disappointed that more people, some of whom we really expected better from, have not been willing to take a principled stance on this matter.

If those currently in power at UNAIDS were truly serious about the mission of UNAIDS, they would listen to us when we say we have lost confidence in you. We don’t feel safe working while you are in charge. They would listen when we say that a halfhearted five-point-plan is not good enough. They would listen, actually listen, when we say that nothing they have done so far has made us feel any safer. They would get out of the lager mentality where people are told to keep this quiet to spare UNAIDS’s reputation – when in fact it is the attempts to paint over all of this that is the true threat to UNAIDS’s reputation.

This letter serves to put UNAIDS leadership on notice. We will not stand for this bullshit any longer. Aids is an on-going crisis in many of our countries. Violence against women is also a crisis. We desperately need UNAIDS to be an accountable, transparent and well governed agency that can lead our response to these crises. We need UNAIDS to be an example we can look up to in our countries – but instead, UNAIDS have provided the blueprint of exactly how not to respond to sexual harassment.

An independent and thorough investigation

The only way for UNAIDS to lead from here, and to restore its credibility, is if all those involved in sexual harassment and all those involved in the mishandling of sexual harassment complaints, and this includes Michel, are held fully to account.

We will not stand for the hypocrisy whereby UNAIDS preaches to the world about “key populations” and “human rights”, while in its own corridors women are being ostracised for blowing the whistle.

We are not so naïve as to think that Michel and a few others stepping down will on its own be enough to undo the organisational rot. We repeat the call for a properly independent and thorough investigation – and following that a process of reforms. But it is clear as day that we do not need to wait for all these investigations and reforms before addressing the rot at the top.

Justice over loyalty

We will not let this go. Should Michel not stand down in the next few weeks, we will mobilise like we haven’t mobilised in years. We will put Michel’s face on banners and make UNAIDS’s tone-deafness to sexual harassment the talk of the 2018 International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam.

If UNAIDS is to emerge as an institution that has the trust of women, their allies, and communities around the world, it must demonstrate that it is prepared to choose justice over loyalty to those at the top. 

We beat Aids denialism. We won the battle for affordable antiretroviral medicines. We will win the battle against sexual harassment and for gender equality – and as we will eventually win this battle in our countries, we must win it now at UNAIDS. #MeToo.

Signed by the following 23 prominent women activists:

Vuyiseka Dubula, activist, former TAC Secretary General (South Africa), Nomfundo Eland, feminist activist (South Africa),  Shereen Essof, feminist activist (international), Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, SHRR expert (South Africa), Sisonke Msimang, writer (South Africa & Australia), Sipho Mthati, activist, former TAC Secretary General (South Africa), Dr Lydia Buzaalirwa, activist (Uganda), Aisha Kangere, activist (Uganda), Martha Thonalah, feminist (Zimbabwe), Seehaam Samaai, African feminist lawyer (South Africa), Alice Kayongo, feminist activist (Uganda), Lucinda van den Heever, African feminist and queer activist (South Africa), Winnie Muiisa, activist (Uganda), Prima Kwangala, advocate (Uganda), Polly Clayden (United Kingdom), Dr Francoise Louis, activist (South Africa), Irene Omoding, activist (Uganda), Oluwakemi Gbadamosi, activist (Uganda), Peace Nyangoma, activist (Uganda), Vuyokazi Matiso-Gonyela, feminist (South Africa), Yvette Raphael, feminist (South Africa), Dr Cecilia Natembo, activist (Uganda) and Salome Ssekakoni, activist (USA). 

Note: This op-ed is adapted from a letter sent by Vuyiseka Dubula and 22 other leading activists to the leadership of UNAIDS.

Image credit: iStock

 
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