March 8, 2018; PRI’s The World
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of reports to be aired on The World. This piece’s author, Amy Costello, is reporting on aid workers’ experiences with sexual harassment and abuse. She would like to hear from you.
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.
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, ‘Shannananna, 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 years-long 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 t