/ 9 May 2006

Report: Liberian children still sexually exploited

Aid workers and United Nations peacekeepers are trading food and other goods for sex with children in camps housing Liberians uprooted by fighting during the West African nation’s war, an international charity says.

Save the Children says the situation for children has not improved since the 1998-2002 civil war ended, and it has called on the UN and humanitarian outfits to boost employee training, investigate all alleged sex crimes and report any violations to authorities.

The charity surveyed nearly 160 children and about 170 adults who were either living in camps or had recently returned home. The aid group says the subjects repeatedly told of girls having sex with older men for money, food and other goods.

”Based on the information gathered for this study, it appears that despite some initiatives to reduce sexual exploitation and abuse, little change has been affected to the lives of vulnerable children since 2002,” the group says in a report published on Monday. ”It is clear that the current monitoring systems are failing to identify the true scale of the exploitation of children.”

The men cited include peacekeeping soldiers, aid workers, teachers and other powerful men in the community. The report does not give the nationality of aid workers or peacekeepers involved; aid groups generally employ both international and local staff.

About 17 000 UN peacekeepers are in Liberia to provide security in the aftermath of war in Liberia, where tens of thousands died in fighting and rape has commonly been used as a tool of intimidation. One-third of Liberia’s three million people were uprooted by conflict.

Save the Children says it learned of transactional sex involving peacekeepers in every camp and community it visited where the UN troops are stationed.

Liberia is just starting to recover from years of civil war, and many of its citizens still live in camps set up after they were forced out of their villages. Twenty-five camps were originally built, and some have since been closed.

The UN humanitarian coordinator in Liberia says the survey — conducted nine months ago — is outdated, and much has improved since.

”The camps that are subject primarily of the report are now closed, so there are good things that are now happening in Liberia,” Jordan Ryan, the coordinator, says. He says UN staff who engage in such ”unacceptable behaviours” are fired.

The UN says it has received reports of eight sexual exploitation and abuse cases involving its workers in Liberia. Most investigations are ongoing, but one allegation has been substantiated and the staff member suspended.

Save the Children’s findings in Liberia are not without precedent elsewhere.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a UN study found that peacekeepers had sex with Congolese women and girls, usually in exchange for food or small sums of money.

Cases of sexual abuse have also been reported in other peacekeeping missions from Bosnia and Kosovo to Cambodia and East Timor.

Liberia says a new democratically elected post-war government is trying to end rampant sexual abuse in Liberia. ”With the coming in of a new government, mechanisms are being put in place to limit these kinds of things,” says Mohammed Sheriff, Liberia’s Deputy Health Minister.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took office in January promising reconstruction and peace. But Sheriff says preventing the sex transactions is a difficult task for a poor country still recovering from years of violence.

”We have parents that have so many children — eight to 10 — that are not able to cope with the meagre amount of money they have,” he says. ”People live below 25 cents [a day], so you can look at reasons why these things may happen.” — Sapa-AP