The extent of sexual abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers is being under-estimated because mechanisms to encourage victims to speak out against their attackers and to protect them are poorly developed, the British non-governmental organisation Save the Children warns in a report released today.
“For every one reported case of sexual abuse, many more are kept quiet,” said the report’s author Corinna Csaky. “Children and their carers are too frightened and powerless to speak out.”
As part of its research for the report called “No One To Turn To”, Save the Children says it conducted field work in Haiti, Cote d’Ivoire and southern Sudan in 2007. In all of those places, the organisation documented evidence that children as young as six were being abused by adults working in the international community.
The children interviewed highlighted many different types of abuse, including trading food for sex, rape, child prostitution, pornography, indecent sexual assault and trafficking of children for sex.
“My friends and I were walking by the National Palace one evening when we encountered a couple of humanitarian men. The men called us over and showed us their penises,” said a 15 year-old girl from Haiti whose testimony is included in the report. “They offered us 100 Haitian gourdes (US$2.80) and some chocolate if we would suck them. I said no, but some of the girls did it and got the money.”
Another teenage girl from Cote d’Ivoire is quoted in the report as saying: “We have never heard of anyone reporting the cases of abuse”.
The report says that perpetrators of sexual abuse “exist in every type of humanitarian, peace and security organisation, at every grade of staff, and among locally recruited and international staff”.
Their crimes are going unreported despite the UN and many NGOs having developed various codes of conduct, inter-agency cooperation and mechanisms to encourage the reporting of abuse, and the preparation of reams of training, information and guidance material, as well as a high-level UN conference in 2006 at which UN agencies and other international actors reaffirmed their commitment to take “vigorous action” against abuses committed by their workers.
“This issue has been well documented and lots of organisations know it happens and have procedures in place to deal with it. But if children and their carers aren’t able to speak out it’s a fundamental flaw in the system and it’s that part of the problem which is what we’re trying to focus on,” Csaky said.
People living in areas where aid is being distributed are afraid that the abuser might come back and hurt them, that aid agencies might stop helping them, or that they will be stigmatised by their family and community, Save the Children says.
Csaky said agencies should take sexual abuse as seriously as they do matters of security, by convening regular meetings of senior staff to discuss the situation and risks.
Other recommendations made in the report are for effective local complaints mechanisms to be set up, a new global watchdog to be established to monitor and evaluate the efforts of international agencies to tackle abuse, and that national child protection systems be better developed.
“The obstacle to this happening is political will. It’s about organisations wanting and actively seeking to address a problem many would rather sweep under the carpet,” she said.
“We’re asking for a new culture of transparency and openness, of new priorities among all those working in emergencies to make the welfare of children a priority.”