For Victims of UN Sex Abuse or Exploitation, Help Can Be Elusive
In recent years, the UN has been rocked by reports of peacekeepers and UN staff sexually abusing or exploiting the very people they are meant to protect.
The UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic had been especially marred by a series of allegations involving peacekeepers since 2015.
When FRONTLINE correspondent Ramita Navai travelled to CAR while filming UN Sex Abuse Scandal, she found Manda, a 14-year-old girl.
Manda told Navai that she’d been on the way to the market about three years ago when a peacekeeper grabbed her.
“I was wearing a nice dress. I don’t know why he chose me,” Manda said. “After he had sex with me, he gave me money. He told me not to talk about it.”
She was 11 years old at the time. She told her mother, but they didn’t report the rape to the UN.
“It was in the second month that I got pregnant,” she said. “He didn’t do anything. Two weeks later, a big truck came and picked them up and they left.
“I thought it was a joke, but they were gone for good.” Manda was left to care for herself and her infant child on her own.
More than 2,000 young women and children have allegedly been sexually exploited or abused by UN peacekeepers — uniformed and civilian — in missions around the world since the early 1990s.
The UN has vowed to stamp out abuse — and support the victims. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres began his term last year announcing a new approach that would, he said, “put the rights and dignity of victims first.” In August, he appointed Jane Connors as the UN’s first victims’ rights advocate, dedicated to ensuring victims of sexual abuse and exploitation have access to assistance and get information about their cases.
One of the first challenges is finding them. Several victims FRONTLINE interviewed had not reported their abuse or exploitation to the UN. But when they do report their cases, help can still be elusive. FRONTLINE interviews with several victims and conversations with experts who track this problem show that support provided by the UN to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation in the past has appeared to be inconsistent, inadequate or difficult to obtain.
The UN says it provides “basic assistance” to those who report being sexually exploited and abused by UN peacekeepers. That can include medical care, help accessing psychological counseling, finding shelter, clothing, food and protection if they are at risk, according to the Conduct in UN Field Missions website. That support is supposed to come even before the UN completes its investigation: victims need not prove they were abused to receive assistance.
In 2013, an independent team of experts that assessed four peacekeeping missions found that “the bare minimum of victim assistance has been provided.” Aid that did come, it found, appeared to depend on goodwill of the UN’s agencies, member states and countries that contributed peacekeeping troops.
The UN can refer victims to counseling or other services, but a variety of circumstances can make it difficult for victims to access those services. Carla Ferstman, a human rights lawyer and lecturer at the Law University of Essex, compiled a report late last year that looked at victims’ access to reparation and assistance. She found that the NGOs and local civil society groups offering the assistance may not always have enough funding or resources to help.
It “can be almost impossible” for victims to access assistance, according to Lewis Mudge, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “The Central African Republic, right now — 80 percent of the territory is controlled by non-state armed groups. So basic movement, let alone to a health clinic, is incredibly risky and downright dangerous.” Lack of security and reliable infrastructure make accessing assistance in CAR that much harder, Mudge noted. “In many cases, you’re talking about walking for several days.”
In cases where local women had children fathered by UN peacekeepers, the UN says it offers to “facilitate the pursuit of claims of paternity and child support.” But in the UN’s view, compensation and child support are the responsibility of the father and his home country.
Manda told FRONTLINE that she reached out to the man who raped her. “I called him twice. He kept saying that he was going to come back for his child,” she said. “It’s been more than two years. The child is walking, and he has not come yet.”
FRONTLINE also met a woman named Francine, who worked as a housekeeper for a civilian peacekeeper in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She said it soon became clear that she was expected to have sex with her employer. She was 15 at the time. After she became pregnant, she said the man who fathered the child disappeared.
“I would like for him to be found, and then for him to help me look after his child,” she said.
Nicole Phillips, a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, works to help women in Haiti gain compensation for babies they say were fathered by UN peacekeepers. The women struggle to earn enough to provide their children with food and water each day, and face major obstacles in receiving compensation.
In some cases, the woman may not know the real name or identity of the purported father. She may not have access to his DNA in order to confirm paternity. He may also have left the country, making it harder to track him down.
“How are you supposed to file a claim against somebody from the UN who had left the country and now lives on another continent in a country that speaks another language?” Phillips said. “The hurdles are almost insurmountable for her.”
The UN has been working to offer more support. It has increased outreach in communities where peacekeepers serve, and added new ways for people to report abuse. In March 2016, the UN created a trust fund to address gaps in services for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. Currently, around $2 million is available through voluntary contributions from 19 member states and payments withheld from peacekeepers found to have committed abuse or exploitation.
“We are determined to do everything possible to ensure that victims receive the assistance and justice they deserve,” a UN peacekeeping spokesperson said in a statement to FRONTLINE.
So far, about $550,000 from the fund has been used to improve the process for filing complaints in the DRC, fund health and legal services for victims in CAR; and support education and vocational training for victims in Liberia, the UN peacekeeping spokesperson said in a statement in response to questions.
It’s also rolling out a database to peacekeeping missions worldwide to keep track of victims and the assistance they receive later this year.
Since FRONTLINE shared details of their cases with the UN, Francine has been in touch with the UN team in the DRC. She’s waiting to hear back.
In CAR, Manda has also now heard from the UN.