Women and children experience sexual abuse, violence, and exploitation in every country around the world. The WHO estimates that 7% of women globally have experienced sexual violence perpetrated by a non-partner, and other studies have estimated that 8 - 31 % of girls and 3- 17 % of boys have experienced sexual abuse. Due to the stigma surrounding these issues, it is difficult to obtain accurate information about the extent of sexual violence and abuse globally, and these statistics are widely acknowledged as underestimating the extent of the problem.
International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to reflect on how the multilateral development banks (MDBs) are addressing sexual violence, abuse, and exploitation in the context of their infrastructure projects. Reducing the risk of abuse is a cornerstone of the MDBs’ contribution toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 5 and target 5.2.
In 2016, in the wake of the Uganda Transport Sector Development Project, the World Bank made an unprecedented commitment to address the risk of gender-based violence (GBV) and child sexual exploitation in infrastructure projects. The Uganda project intended to upgrade and rehabilitate a road, a much-needed and welcome intervention for project-affected communities. However, the project resulted in serious harm to children and communities living near the road, including many cases of child sexual abuse and teen pregnancies caused by road workers, which the World Bank failed to anticipate and prevent during project implementation.
The World Bank recognized the harm caused by its failure to prevent, and respond to, cases of sexual exploitation and thus, in 2016, it convened a GBV task force that developed recommendations on preventing, and responding to, sexual exploitation and abuse. The World Bank also developed a guidance note on managing labor influx, and in 2018, published a good practice note on addressing GBV in projects that involve major civil works. These documents recommend that World Bank staff ensure adequate assessment, mitigation, and monitoring of GBV risks, and put into place response protocols so staff are prepared when GBV incidents occur.
Other MDBs have been slow to follow the World Bank’s example, despite the urgency of tackling this issue and each MDB’s commitment to support achievement of the SDGs. In the Asia Pacific region, a recent ADB and UN Women report found that “the proportion of women who experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, from a non-partner, ranged from 2.3 per cent in Viet Nam and 16.9 per cent in Japan, to 33 per cent in Vanuatu and 47.3 per cent in Nauru.” In India, a child is sexually abused every 15 minutes. In the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Russia, the WHO estimates that 5.2% percent of women have experienced sexual violence perpetrated by a non-partner.
Yet the two multilateral development banks that focus on the Asia region—the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank—do not appear to have integrated prevention strategies into the design and management of their infrastructure projects.
For example, the Asian Development Bank’s independent accountability mechanism found in 2018 that there were numerous shortfalls in GBV prevention for the proposed Nenskra dam in Georgia. The Compliance Review Panel pointed out that the measures included in project documents aimed at protecting the workers on the project, as opposed to protecting the local population from the risks—including the risk of GBV and child sexual abuse—as a result of the influx of workers into remote mountain communities. The new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite its public commitments to address the risks and impacts of projects on women and girls, also has been slow to implement the good practices identified by the World Bank. A BIC review of AIIB stand-alone project documents suggests significant gaps and a lack of consistency in addressing the risk of GBV and child sexual exploitation.
Both ADB and AIIB are preparing to review the environmental and social standards for their projects, which offer an opportunity to ensure that each institution’s standards adequately address sexual violence, abuse, and exploitation. But in the interim, both ADB and AIIB can and should take steps to prevent their projects from resulting in harm to women and children—by adopting good practice guidance for staff and borrowing countries on addressing these issues, and requiring that prevention measures be incorporated into project plans.