Oxfam shelved #IBelieveHer campaign after assault allegations surfaced

Oxfam has confirmed to CBC News it had to drop a planned campaign to raise sexual assault awareness, providing a glimpse into the extent to which emerging misconduct allegations impacted the work of many in the charitable organization who were just trying to do their jobs.

Organization feared action would be 'perceived as hypocritical'

Lesley Agams says she feels vindicated in light of the allegations that surfaced earlier this month against Oxfam officials, after feeling her case was not adequately addressed in 2010. (Courtesy Agams)

A planned Oxfam #IBelieveHer campaign aimed at supporting survivors of sexual assault and harassment was shelved last fall after allegations surfaced that a senior Oxfam staffer had assaulted a colleague. 

An internal email written in November provided to CBC News says that after consulting women's rights groups, a risk analysis showed the action "could be perceived as hypocritical" given the in-house allegations coming to light.

The postponement, confirmed by Oxfam, provides a glimpse into the extent to which emerging sexual misconduct allegations have impacted the work of many Oxfam staff just trying to do their jobs.

"The cases that were to be profiled were of women who had been believed," said the email, "so there was a risk of significant media backlash."

"To credibly say Enough to violence externally, we need to first say Enough internally," continued the email. It added that the team was "deeply distressed" about the cases in the media and called on senior leadership to build a culture that "consistently upholds women's rights and counters patriarchy norms."

The media reports at the time concerned Lesley Agams, a lawyer who was once Oxfam's country director in Nigeria. 

She said that in 2010, during a meeting at headquarters in Oxford, a senior Oxfam official tried to force himself on her. 

She managed to push him off and two days later informed human resources. The charitable organization says the allegation was taken seriously and "thoroughly investigated," but that "despite our best efforts we could not uncover enough evidence to substantiate it."

'I felt gaslighted'

Agams told CBC News they simply didn't believe her. She was subsequently terminated, apparently for "performance issues," a decision which she appealed and lost. The termination letter was delivered by the man she accused of assault.

"I felt gaslighted," she said in an interview with CBC News. "I remember doubting myself, I'm like, 'am I wrong, did I imagine this, was it really my fault?'" 

Agams says she now feels vindicated by the multiple sexual exploitation allegations that surfaced earlier this month. 

Oxfam gets backing from Theresa May

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Oxfam, an aid organization facing allegations of failing to deal with accusations of sexual misconduct by staff, has received the backing of British prime minister. Theresa May says her government will continue to support Oxfam - but that hasn't stopped others from taking action, as thousands of regular donors have stopped donating

Oxfam has been embroiled in a scandal since The Times reported seven Oxfam staff had invited prostitutes to Oxfam premises in Haiti while there to help the country recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake. Some 26 new allegations of exploitation, including 16 in the field, have been reported since.

"Oxfam keeps on showing that what they say and what they do are very different," she said.

Several investigations and inquiries are now pending, including by the Britain's charities commission which regulates the industry and the parliamentary international development committee.

On Thursday, Oxfam said the Haitian government announced it will suspend Oxfam Great Britain's operations in the country for two months while it investigates how the agency handled the case of staff using sex workers.

Concerns long before Haiti

Agams's case is still the subject of an internal Oxfam investigation into how it was handled by the leadership, including its chief Mark Goldring.

Longtime Oxfam employee Marc Wegerif, no longer with the organization, is among those calling for an independent investigation. (Courtesy Marc Wegerif)

That inquiry was sparked by a complaint from Marc Wegerif, a former, longtime Oxfam employee. He questioned whether senior management properly handled the Agams case.

Wegerif says an internal investigation was based only on "two phone calls and two emails," which Agams confirms. 

"I find it shocking," he said from Johannesburg. 

"We were calling for an independent investigation ... before many of us even knew about the Haiti case. Now this only adds to that urgency."

It also makes it unclear when the #IBelieveHer campaign might be resurrected.

In a statement, an Oxfam spokeswoman said the decision to postpone the #IBelieveHer campaign was based on a sense from Oxfam's partners that "internal reflection on support for survivors was needed before we went ahead."

An early statement on the Agams case said that lessons have been learned, with Oxfam implementing a whistleblower hotline and safeguarding procedures. 

"Ms. Agams's complaint would be handled differently today," the statement said.

Wegerif said he believed the #iBelieveHer campaign was cancelled "because Oxfam realized they were not living up to the very standards that their campaign was going to be demanding of us.

"Now if that is not wake-up call I don't know what is."