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Weinstein, Westminster and the West Africa scandals – what do they tell us about preventing sexual exploitation and abuse?

by Paul Nolan, 19th January 2018

News Stories

Much has been said about everyone in the film industry knowing about the egregious behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, and the vast majority choosing not to say anything. Those that did were ignored, failed to find allies as brave as they were in speaking out, or were muzzled by more bullying behaviour on his part and others charged with preserving his position.

Weinstein enjoyed a position of enormous power and privilege. He controlled resources and he controlled lives. He could make and break careers and his wealth and influence made him untouchable, until now.

What has also emerged is the scale of the problem across so many sectors. The stories of sexual harassment, assault and crimes of rape emerged not long after from the Palace of Westminster, lowering the estimation of our elected representatives even further and reinforcing the fact that those in positions of power, mainly men, often abuse that power and create environments that make it very difficult for the abused to speak out.

This is probably less of a surprise to women who have had to contend with sexist, harassing behaviour in the work place and elsewhere for so long, and who have had to deal with sexual harassment and assaults almost as a routine part of being an employee.

But this is not just about individuals who behave so badly. Organisations and their cultures, and that means all of us that work in them, also ‘collude’ to some extent or another in allowing this to happen or in not raising our concerns forcefully enough, or at all. And it is a failure of leadership when those with the authority and responsibility to act, do not do so.

There are so many examples of this problem and most do not achieve the status of ‘public scandal’ in the way the Weinstein or Westminster issues have. When it comes to abuse of children, the Savile affair and the BBC stand out as another example of how someone can ‘hide in plain sight’. Again, so many people knew or strongly suspected he was abusing his position to carry out regular sexual assaults on children, but his unspeakable reign of abuse went on for decades.

In other institutions – care homes, schools, churches, youth groups, sports coaching – we have seen individuals in positions of trust abusing the children and vulnerable adults they are there to serve.

The world of international aid and development is sadly not immune from the problem of abuse of power. The sector lost its innocence at the turn of the century with a scandal centred on West Africa, where aid workers were found to be sexually abusing and exploiting refugee and displaced populations in exchange for the basic humanitarian aid to which they were entitled.

Whatever the sector, it is the same dynamic at play. Abusers in positions of power, their victims in vulnerable situations unable or unequipped to resist the abuse, not listened to or believed if they report the problem.


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