Sexual Assault and Abuse: What part of “Peacekeeping” does the U.N. not understand?

Members of the UN-African Union mission in Darfur (UNAMID) patrol the area near the city of Nyala in Sudan’s Darfur

You would be justified in thinking that committing gender based violence and assault of children would not be part of “peacekeeping,” and yet, as has been documented again and again, it is. Gender violence and sexual exploitation are a problem hidden in plain sight in peacekeeping, as this article on the U.N. ignoring sexual abuse of children by French troops in Africa shows.

Sexual abuse and exploitation by United Nations “peacekeepers” has been known to be a problem for decades, it remains a problem, with little support available for victims, and now for the children “peacekeepers” have fathered, according to a new Time article.

It is staggering how long this has been known, and yet ignored or suppressed and not stopped. The important 1996 UNICEF study, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, reported that “In 6 out of 12 country studies, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.” A review eight years later concluded that prostitution and sexual abuse followed most UN interventions.

“Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights” is one of the ten “Just Peace practices” that are foundational to the Just Peace paradigm first developed in the 1990’s by a diverse group of Christian leaders, refined post 9/11 and then expanded in an interfaith context since 2012.

Clearly stopping this abuse by U.N. peacekeepers must be part of any Just Peace practice that takes gender and sexual violence as a peace imperative, as I argue in Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women.

And, as with so many issues of gender violence and sexual exploitation, it is crucial to focus on structural issues of power and their connection to abuse.

There is an overarching issue with the U.N. and power that should be named. The United Nations and its workers are often critiqued for assuming a paternalistic ‘we’re here to help you’ mentality. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Lehmah Gbowee  succinctly says in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers, the “U.N. reps do not listen to the local people, and many disasters that could have been avoided.” This is a commonly heard critique.

This contributes to the failure to attend to complaints of sexual violence and abuse against peacekeeper troops by local people.

But even when such complaints are made, the U.N. does not have its own peacekeeping “army.” It relies on members to contribute troops, and following up on claims of sexual misconduct by troops, and now, the DNA testing to prove whether child support claims can be made against one of the peacekeepers, must be done through the host country. When a lot of this alleged “misconduct” is criminal (almost half of the paternity claims reported since January 2010 — 14 out of 29 — were made by minors who said they’ had been sexually abused), the U.N. becomes “nervous about angering member states amid a persistent need for peacekeepers.”

It is clearly imperative to address the poverty of those children fathered and then abandoned by peacekeepers, but that is only one part of this many-faceted problem. Those children born to women (and sometimes girls) are living in poverty with their mothers because they, mothers and children, are often ostracized by their communities. And what of those women and children who have been sexually exploited who are not in this group? Not all the sexually abused have born children.

Ban Ki-moon has suggested creating a U.N. fund “to help support children left behind, especially in cases where countries fail to act on paternity claims.” But this idea does not go nearly far enough.

The U.N. needs to create such a fund in order to provide support, including options for therapy as well as education and economic opportunity, for all those sexually abused and exploited by peacekeepers. Otherwise, the U.N. is furthering the idea that impregnation is the main problem. It is not. Sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeeping troops are the main problem.

it has been very important that the United Nations adopted The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, defining violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

And now the United Nations needs to act on its own words. The U.N. should create a comprehensive global fund to actually deal with the violence against women and children that has been done by their peacekeepers.

In addition,  training for all U.N. troops needs to include prohibitions on sexual assault and abuse, as well as mandatory reporting mechanisms.

And this needs to be done now.

Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

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