Malakal, South Sudan – Cases of sexual abuse by aid workers at a UN-run camp in South Sudan first surfaced in 2015, two years after the country’s civil war broke out. Seven years on, such reports have not only continued, but recently they have increased, an investigation by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera found.
These revelations come at a tense time, with the United Nations estimating that as many as 5,000 evacuees could soon arrive at the camp in Malakal and residents fearing that the influx could make increase in cases of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA). They say these incidents go largely unchecked despite a UN-led task force tasked with addressing the issue.
Residents are also worried that the recent violence these people are fleeing will infiltrate the Protected Civilian (PoC) site – recent clashes between the Shilluk and Nuer tribesmen in the camp have flared up. .
Aid workers who worked at the PoC site told reporters that accounts of abuse began to run rampant shortly after the camp opened in late 2013, but the investigation by The New Artificialuman and Al Jazeera shows that the scale of abuse has increased, according to aid workers, camp residents, and victims. The reporters also analyzed a number of UN and NGO documents.
One woman said she was pregnant in 2019 by a local World Food Program (WFP) employee – although the relationship is consensual, most aid groups, including WFP, ban sexual relations with aid recipients because of a marked power imbalance between aid workers and aid beneficiaries. She told reporters in December 2021 that she was so worried about continued sexual abuse that she was putting her eldest daughter, now 15, on birth control .
One teenager said she was 15 years old when a local World Vision employee raped and fed her. Fearing for her future, she said she tried to hang herself before deciding to leave the camp to try to build a better life.
World Vision said it was opening an immediate investigation into the woman’s case, while WFP said it could not comment on specific cases.
“Those who exploit and sexually abuse women in [protection sites] who are meant to serve and protect them; Their entire lives depend on the services of these aid workers themselves. “Aluel Atem, activist
The women’s allegations were verified against those of other camp residents – testimony detailed in a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report sent to humanitarian agencies on October 5, 2020, and was shared with The New Humanity and Al Jazeera by an aid worker, who requested anonymity due to fear of reprisal.
In the report, residents reported being sexually exploited “on a daily basis,” most of which was carried out by humanitarian workers; UN employees and NGOs rented houses in the camp to have sex with women, and UN peacekeepers bribed to gain access to women. Camp residents also reported that three female students were raped and tortured by a teacher in 2018. Some of the schools in the camp are supported by United Nations agencies and NGOs.
Other accounts of abuse continued for at least 18 months after the report was published.
Sara Beysolow Nyanti, deputy head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, said: “I have received the most alarming information about the increase in sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) in my locality. Malakal’s Protection of Civilian (POC) Point”. , the letter was sent to about 17 aid organizations working in the camp, as well as several camps coordinating groups. A copy of the letter, which has not been made public, was obtained by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera.
Nyanti, who assumed his role in January 2022, said the reported increase was noted during a meeting with humanitarian partners in the Malakal PoC, which currently numbers around 37,000 people.
She told reporters in an email on August 12 that addressing such abuse was one of her “top priorities,” but she did not comment on why. why previous strategies may not be successful.
Mentioning an increase, even when aid officials refuse to provide information on specific cases or are unable to provide a more complete picture, provides a rare glimpse into a problem. Issues are reported as a whole, and an issue often arises around the United Nations and the aid sector.
Aid groups acknowledge that barriers still exist in addressing such abuse. Their representatives told reporters they are working towards raising awareness about what constitutes exploitation and how it is reported. Measures include holding community talks, broadcasting messages over the radio and sharing hotline numbers to raise awareness.
Although some women say that sex is consensual, they also told reporters that they have no other way to support themselves or their families without the money or gifts that men have to offer. he provided. They said they feared if they stopped having sex with the aid workers, the support would stop.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse is a consequence of abuses of power and gender inequality, inherent in structures and practices,” UN Women spokesman Peterson Magoola told reporters in an email. existing social and institutional practices”. UN Women has co-chaired the national task force since 2018.
According to the UN, sexual exploitation is defined (PDF) as any actual or attempted abuse of power by a person, using vulnerability or trust, for sexual purposes. It bans because it is based on unequal relationships, noting any kind of transaction for sex – such as offering gifts or offering support – reflects this unequal balance of power .
“Consent is irrelevant; even if someone accepts a gift or support… the transaction is still considered exploitative,” reads one guide.
The office of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres did not respond to a request for comment on The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera investigation during publication.