(Updated with comments from Women Deliver)
LONDON, June 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The head of leading rights group Women Deliver has apologised and pledged an independent investigation after current and former staff said she ruled over a “toxic” culture of racism.
Experts said the problems at New York-based Women Deliver were endemic in the NGO world, with widespread complaints of racial inequality in a sector already under fire for sexual abuse of vulnerable women.
President Katja Iversen, who has previously worked at the United Nations, said she would go on leave until the investigation was complete.
Iversen acted after staff and activists on its prestigious Young Leaders programme spoke out in support of black former employees who said they had met with discrimination.
“In my discussions with staff, it’s clear that the problems still run deep,” Iversen said in a statement on Tuesday.
“I apologize and take full responsibility for these experiences and for my role in it. We have not lived up to our own values, and I am deeply sorry for the pain and the trauma experienced by current and former employees.”
Women Deliver is a leading global advocacy organisation that champions the health and rights of girls and women and advises governments, corporations and civil society groups.
It is known for its access to high-profile figures and for hosting the world’s biggest gender equality conference, drawing more than 8,000 people, including world leaders and royalty.
A spokeswoman for Women Deliver said the organisation had set up hotline last week for staff to report any concerns and ensured those reports could be made anonymously.
“We have encouraged our staff to report any wrongdoing and assured them that there will be no retaliation for speaking out and speaking out publicly,” the spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Former staff had said the organisation was marred by a “white savior complex” in accusations of discrimination which attracted widespread attention as protests against racism mounted around the world.
“My time at Women Deliver was plagued by straight up racist, white faux feminism & toxic clickish (sic) behavior — from the top down,” former employee Chelsea Williams-Diggs wrote on Twitter, saying she was left traumatised.
Another former staffer, Brittany Tatum, said she too had suffered discrimination, citing low pay, verbal abuse and even being asked if her hair was real by a member of human resources.
She also saw qualified black candidates turned down for jobs, she said, due to a prevailing “white savior complex”.
The spokeswoman for Women Deliver said that employee left the organisation more than three years ago.
The former staffers were publicly backed by other current and former staff who attested to “systemic” racism and a toxic culture.
More than 100 activists supported through Women Deliver’s Young Leaders programme issued a statement demanding action.
“We ... will refuse to be associated with any future benefit derived from a platform that is revealed to be built on white supremacy, corporate power and racial oppression,” they said.
Some experts said racism was widespread in women’s rights groups, threatening to further rock the non-profit sector, already badly bruised by revelations over sexual abuse by aid workers.
Humanitarian groups had pledged to clean up their act after it emerged in 2018 that Oxfam staff used prostitutes in Haiti during an earthquake relief mission in a story which opened a wider discussion of abuse in the sector.
“This is similar to the #AidToo and the #MeToo moment, where the reckoning for the charity and the NGO sector is overdue,” said Shaista Aziz, a campaigner against sexual abuse and racism in non-profit organisations.
She said that a number of women working in the sector had got in contact in recent weeks expressing anger and outrage after their organisations released statements condemning racism while failing to tackle the issue in their own ranks.
“Racism is rife in the women’s sector,” Aziz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “This is a moment now for truth, for constructive action and less talk.”