Skip to main content

PSEA - Sexual Harassment

Protection against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA)

Protection against sexual exploitation and abuse (PSEA) refers to the measures and standards set to protect people of concern/beneficiaries from sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by humanitarian or associated staff. PSEA was brought to attention following several cases of sexual exploitation by aid workers in West Africa in 2002. In response, the Secretary-General’s Bulletin on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (ST/SGB/2003/13) was released to set a strong commitment towards the protection of the affected population in emergency contexts.

In the context of the Americas, in 2017 with the support of UNHCR's Regional Legal Unit, a survey was launched to map out the existing PSEA and sexual harassment (SH) mechanisms used in the region; subsequently, a the Regional PSEA Network was established and good practices were identified within the operations of Mexico and Colombia. Enhancing PSEA structures in the Americas followed and additional support was gathered.

In 2019, the Regional PSEA/SH Project in the Americas was launched with the collaboration of six pilot countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. The project aims to support managers and field operations to put in place standardized and contextualized procedures to prevent SEA and SH, and to improve safe and confidential inter-agency community-based complaint and response mechanisms. Taking into account the results and feedback of implemented PSEA tools, a Regional PSEA/SH Protocol and implementation Toolkit is expected to be launched to provide guidance on consultations with communities, awareness raising and inter-agency SEA complaint mechanisms, as well as guidance on consultation and dialogue with staff and partners and facilitation of safe disclosure and reporting of SEA and SH.

The PSEA Network coordinates closely with the RSSN to establish interagency complaint mechanisms, which was also Point 5 of the Action Plan agreed in the last Annual RSSN retreat. It also falls within the standards of the RSSN self-audit to have an anonymous community-based complaint mechanism in place and that it be known by members of the community and POC using the Safe Space. Participating service providers aim to fulfil the commitments, obligations and requirements set out within this Mechanism to ensure adequate safeguards and that appropriate actions are established on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. Participating service providers are committed to openly and actively discuss and address issues that arise in the implementation of the Mechanism and in support of the work of the Regional PSEA Network and Regional Safe Space Network (RSSN) in the Americas Region.


Sexual exploitation means any actual or attempted abuse of position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially, or politically from the sexual exploitation of persons of concern.

Sexual abuse means the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force, or under unequal or coercive conditions.

Sexual Harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another. Sexual harassment is particularly serious when it interferes, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

Legal and Policy Framework

  • UN Staff Rules and Regulations
  • ST/SGB/2003/13 Secretary-General’s Bulletin Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse
  • UNHCR’s Compliance Memorandum 2004
  • UNHCR Code of Conduct 2004
  • Policy on Discrimination, Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Abuse of Authority 2014
  • Report of SG 2017 on Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach
  • IASC “Zero Tolerance” on Sexual Harassment and Abuse within the Humanitarian Sector 2017
  • UNHCR AI -2018/18-Administrative Instructions on Misconduct and Disciplinary Process
  • UNHCR AI-2018/18 Administrative Instruction on Protection against Retaliation

PSEA/SH Toolkit and Interagency Community-based Complaint Referral Mechanism in the Americas

The Interagency Community-based Complaint Referral Mechanism (hereinafter ‘Mechanism’) in the Americas was developed under the umbrella of the Regional Safe Spaces Network (RSSN) and the Regional Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) Network. UNHCR’s Regional Legal Unit of the Americas Bureau led the development of the Mechanism following consultations with concerned populations and service providers working to support refugees, migrants, displaced populations, stateless people and others on the move across the region.

Pilot teams, coordinated by national UNHCR focal points for the Regional Safe Spaces Network in Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, conducted consultations with communities and service providers on PSEA /SH and complaint systems and tested tools as a critical step for the development of the Mechanism and the Regional PSEA/SH Toolkit. The development of the Regional Mechanism and PSEA/SH Toolkit was coordinated by Ana Belén Anguita Arjona, Senior Protection Officer at the UNHCR Regional Legal Unit; researched and drafted by Claire Goudsmit, UNCHR consultant; and supported by Brandon Li Vega, Protection Assistant.

Download Complete Regional Toolkit for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, Sexual Harassment (PSEA/SH) and Inter-agency Community-Based Complaint Referral Mechanism in the Americas

To top

Download Regional Interagency CBCM in the Americas