Trigger Warning: this post contains descriptions and links to descriptions of sexual abuse against children.
I woke up this morning to two emails from readers, and they both contained this story (thanks Jean and Rich): a new study shows that peacekeepers and aidworkers in post-conflict areas are sexually abusing children much more than we’d like to believe.
Children as young as six are being sexually abused by peacekeepers and aid workers, says a leading UK charity.
Children in post-conflict areas are being abused by the very people drafted into such zones to help look after them, says Save the Children.
After research in Ivory Coast, southern Sudan and Haiti, the charity proposed an international watchdog be set up.
Save the Children said it had sacked three workers for breaching its codes, and called on others to do the same.
The three men were all dismissed in the past year for having had sex with girls aged 17 – which the charity said was a sackable offence even though not illegal.
The UN has said it welcomes the charity’s report, which it will study closely.
Save the Children says the most shocking aspect of child sex abuse is that most of it goes unreported and unpunished, with children too scared to speak out.
The study found a huge range of exploitation and abuse: children trading sex for food, forced sex, verbal sexual abuse, child prostitution, child pornography, sexual slavery, sexual assault and child trafficking.
[. . .]
More than half of the participants in the study identified incidents of sexual touching and forced sex. Of these, 18 and 23 percent respectively recalled 10 or more such incidents.
“They especially ask us for girls of our age. Often it will be between eight and 10 men who will share two or three girls. When I suggest an older girl, they say that they want a young girl,” a 14-year-old boy who works at a peacekeeping camp in Ivory Coast told the Save the Children research team.
And the report said official U.N. statistics appeared to underestimate the scale of abuse, probably because so much of the exploitation was not reported by victims.
“Clearly there is a significant disparity between the low levels of abuse cited in these statistics and the high levels suggested in field investigations and other evidence,” it said.
Save the Children said there were many reasons why abuse was not reported: fear of losing material assistance, threat of retribution, stigmatization, negative economic impact, lack of legal services, resignation to abuse, lack of information about how to report abuse and, crucially, lack of faith in a response.
For the record, though I recognize and appreciate the reasons for explaining that the methods of rape are varied, and it’s therefore likely that a one-size-fits-all solution does not exist, I think it’s important to read the above list of offenses as “rape, rape, threats of rape, rape, rape, rape, sexual assault and rape.”
A broad spectrum of different types of aid workers and peacekeepers were implicated in the abuse. For example, staff at every level, from guards and drivers to senior managers,were identified as having been involved. Participants also implicated a mix of local, national and international personnel, including staff described as ‘black,’ ‘white,’ ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ people. While the overwhelming majority of perpetrators were thought to be men, a few participants identified women as having abused boys: “One day two boys who ran errands for the [international organisation] saw a woman go into the bush and give a boy of 13 a blow-job.” (Young boy, Côte d’Ivoire)
While the focus of this study is on sexual exploitation and abuse committed by those associated with the international community, it is important to recognise the inextricable links with the local context. Abuse is also perpetrated by several members of the local community, including teachers, the police, the military, and within the family. Previous reports also suggest that where abuse is prevalent in the local community, children are more likely to be abused by staff associated with international organisations, and vice versa.13 “The humanitarian staff committing the abuse are often from the local community. Therefore, you cannot consider abuse by humanitarian workers and abuse by other people separately. You need to think of them both together and deal with them both together.” (Adult woman, Southern Sudan)
The report goes on to explain how the low social standing of women and girls contributes to the perpetuation of abuse, and adds many other reasons why victims do not report sexual violence (very common sense ones like “we need to eat” or “I didn’t know you could report it”) .
I’m unsurprised by the results of this study not because I think that peacekeeping forces are, as a general rule, evil rapist assholes. I’m unsurprised because they are in a position of very great power over a group of people who have been put in a vulnerable situation. Rape is a crime committed out of lust for power, not for sex. Though it’s most appalling when those in a position to protect end up doing incredible harm themselves, and though it greatly saddens and offends me, it doesn’t shock me in the least. The very reason why people in this kind of position (peacekeepers, soldiers, police officers, etc.) need the most monitoring, despite the fact that most peacekeepers are good people doing their jobs, is because theirs is a position to which rapists will naturally be drawn due to the increased opportunities and access to potential victims. Furthermore, the study concludes that in communities where sexual violence is committed by peacekeepers, sexual violence is more likely to be committed by members of the community, and vice versa. In other words, we’re seeing yet again that those faced with violence every day become more likely to commit it themselves.
There are two additionally disturbing factors that I’d like to raise. The first is pointed out by Save The Children themselves, in the report: because the research was conducted by an organization whose workers have committed sexual abuse and who are associated either actually or symbolically with other groups known to have committed sexual abuse, it’s likely that the rate of abuse reported is actually artificially low. As the numbers are so high already, and as reports of sexual assault are already fewer than their instances (even in unofficial reporting like this), the thought is pretty terrifying. The second disturbing point is that this study only covers sexual violence against children, and therefore any study that included adults is likely to discover the full rates of sexual violence are even more nauseating.
In the end, I don’t agree with all of Save The Children’s rhetorical framing or how they themselves handled many allegations. I also have a problem with some of the recommendations. While many are very good — like working with local communities rather than against them — others don’t strike me as going far enough, lacking significant emphasis on prevention and failing to adequately describe specific methods of investigation and disciplinary action against perpetrators. However, as they admit that their organization, one specifically designed to help and protect children, is not immune from sexual abuse against children, undertaking the task is brave and very responsible. Despite the fact that this issue direly needs to be addressed, most organizations would and do simply make efforts to cover it up and save their own asses.
But putting together a report is not going to help these children all on its own. The real question, of course, is whether or not anything will actually be done.
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