Charitable rape: Peacekeepers’ dirty little secrets
Last summer I travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to help establish the first free legal advice centre in Kinshasa. I arrived with grand aspirations and bags of enthusiasm. But it was short lived. It was not long before I discovered the vast sexual exploitation of young Congolese women at the hands of peace keeping troops, aid workers, non-governmental organisation employees and others acting on behalf of the international community.
At restaurants, bars and clubs, white men in smart suits dangled dollars as bait before impoverished young girls’ eyes, some as young as 12. They did so with no shame and arrogant impunity. Their actions are despicable; they rape the most vulnerable children and adults in the world, the very people they are supposed to protect. It is hard to imagine a more grotesque abuse of authority and flagrant violation of human rights.
Heavily dependent on foreign aid and with virtually no regulation or accountability, Kinshasa’s justice system is dysfunctional and ill-equipped to deal with a rising tide of sex missionaries. In a city with exceeding levels of unemployment and few opportunities, the impoverished are sexually exploited by do-gooder men because they need money to survive. Victims do not have access to courts and the police, as they are under resourced and the enforcement agents themselves are often complicit in the abuse.
Many victims also fear that if they report the abuse they will suffer stigmatisation, negative economic impact, fear of retaliation or retribution and resignation of abuse. As a result an overwhelming majority of victims do not report the abuse. Under-reporting perpetuates a lack of accountability for the abuse, since it underplays the true scale of the problem. This creates a perfect environment for abuse by visiting humanitarian workers to flourish.
I discussed the abuse with humanitarian workers and I was astounded by their response. The women I spoke to turn a blind eye and refuse to discuss the matter on anything more than a superficial level. Meanwhile the male abusers believed that their behaviour is acceptable. It seems that once people are taken out of socially and legally controlled societies where their desires are repressed by rules and order, they feel able to fulfil their sexual fantasies through licentious behaviour with no conscience. You might wonder how they reconcile their humanitarian role with their abusive acts; it appears that their charitable purpose compensates for any conscience that might arise.
But on reflection this is not just an opportunity for humanitarian workers to fill their boots; this is an example of modern slavery exercised by colonial power and racial exploitation. Humanitarian workers choose to abuse young Congolese women rather than engage in consensual sex with other humanitarian workers. They are able to abuse young Congolese women because they distance themselves from the victims by identifying them as ‘the other’, subordinate to themselves and deserving of their raped fate. A stark comparison can be drawn between bygone eras when white slave owners owned black women’s bodies and today, where white humanitarian workers claim dominance over black women’s bodies in exchange for money.
There is another aspect to the abuse perpetrated by humanitarian workers, their desire to erotically transgress race taboos. Following the slavery era, race taboos evolved to prohibit white men from gazing at black women’s bodies and infringing on a territory that they no longer have any right to claim. The clear message is that black women’s’ bodies are off-limits to white men. But in countries with no law and order and in positions of power, the temptation to break race taboos is overwhelming for some humanitarian workers. Unable to control their impulses, they violently transgress race taboos and sexually abuse Congolese women. Unlike the victims, the humanitarian workers are not seen as traitors to their race or even despised by their fellow colleagues; instead racial dominance, heterosexual-masculinity and colonial power is reaffirmed.
Whatever the reasons might be, it is clear that the abuse perpetrated by humanitarian workers who are supposed to be supporting less economically developed countries, ensures that these countries remain disadvantaged and in need of international workers. This perpetuates a cycle of need, abuse and oppression.
The abuse I observed in my limited time in Kinshasa is corroborated by a report in 2004 which found that in the DRC many girls and women traded sex for food and other items with UN peacekeepers as a survival tactic. This form of abuse is not uncommon. During the UN mission in Cambodia the number of prostitutes rose from 6,000 to 25,000 from 1992 to 1993, and this included an increase in child prostitutes.
In 2003 Italian, Danish and Slovak peacekeepers were expelled from Eritrea in separate incidents for having sex with minors. In 2000, Jordanian, Pakistani and German military troops involved in a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina were investigated for trafficking young women. Every agency is at risk of this problem. That is not to say that every person associated with the international community is a perpetrator of sexual abuse – far from it.
Breaking the silence is an essential step towards elimination. Back in 2002 the UN responded to this problem by establishing a code of conduct for its workers, and Secretary General Kofi Annan announced a policy of “zero tolerance” regarding sexual misconduct. Despite the UN’s proposed policies, a report by Save the Children UK identified that sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeeping troops and humanitarian aid workers is still a widespread problem.
In the report one young boy in Haiti said “there is a little girl who sleeps in the street, and there were a group of people in the streets who decided to make money off of her. They took her to a man who works for an NGO. He gave her one American dollar and the little girl was happy to see the money. It was two in the morning. The man took her and raped her. In the morning the little girl could not walk”.
The report identified a number of recommendations but little has come to fruition.
Image credit Gwenn Dubourthoumieu/AFP/Getty ImagesTagged in: Congo, Congolese women, human rights, Kinshasa, rape
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