Abuse of Children by Aid Workers Common & Under-Reported, Study Finds

Too many children living in countries affected by conflicts and natural disasters are being sexually exploited and abused by the humanitarian aid workers and peacekeepers hired to help them, and many of these children are afraid to report the violence. A major new study from Save the Children UK finds that, despite commitments by governments and international organizations to tackle this problem, chronic under-reporting of this abuse leaves many children suffering in silence.

According to No One to Turn To, children said that they are afraid to report the abuse, terrified that their abusers will retaliate, and fearful that aid agencies will stop helping them or that they will be stigmatized or even punished by their families or communities if they speak up. This suggests that for every case of abuse that is identified, many more likely go unreported.

For the study, Save the Children UK’s researchers visited Cote D’Ivoire, Haiti and Southern Sudan, holding 38 focus group discussions with 250 children and 91 adults. They conducted in-depth interviews with 30 humanitarian, peace and security professionals working around the world, and did additional “desk-based” research. More than half the research participants identified incidents of sexual touching and coerced sex; in just four of the 38 focus groups were individuals unable to recall any incidents of abuse.

Around the world, they found that children are being forced to trade food for sex and experiencing rape, child prostitution, sexual slavery, pornography, indecent sexual assault and trafficking. “People don’t report it because they are worried that the agency will stop working here, and we need them,” said a teenage boy in Southern Sudan. In Haiti, children as young as age six are being abused by adults working for the international community.

While most aid workers are compassionate and ethical, researchers found perpetrators of sexual abuse of children in every type of humanitarian, peace and security organization, at every grade of staff, and among both locally recruited and international staff. Breaking the silence is an essential step toward addressing it, the agency said in releasing the report.

Save the Children UK is calling for a new global watchdog. It is asking the United Nations Task Force on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse to adopt three recommendations:

  • Set up local complaint mechanisms in the countries in which there is a significant international presence, so children and/or parents can report abuses carried out by those acting on behalf of the international community and get justice;
  • Establish a new global watchdog to monitor and evaluate the efforts of international agencies to tackle this abuse and champion more effective responses; and
  • Increase investment in tackling the underlying causes of sexual abuse, for example support for legal reforms, public education and awareness raising, and the development of national child protection systems.

“This research exposes the despicable actions of a small number of perpetrators who are sexually abusing some of the most vulnerable children in the world, the very children they are meant to protect,” said Save the Children UK Chief Executive Jasmine Whitbread. “It is hard to imagine a more grotesque abuse of authority or flagrant violation of children’s rights. In recent years, some important commitments have been made by the United Nations, the wider international community and by humanitarian and aid agencies to act on this problem. But welcome as these are, in most cases statements of principle and good intent have yet to be converted into really decisive and concerted international action.”

The new study is available online at www.savethechildren.org.uk/en/54_5706.htm. The International Violence Against Women Act would address violence in humanitarian assistance programs, and in other ways prevent violence and exploitation of women and children. For more information on this legislation, visit www.endabuse.org/programs/display.php3?DocID=321.

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