U.N. confronts another sex scandal
Girls as young as 13 were having sex with U.N. peacekeepers for as little as $1.
Five young Haitian women who followed soldiers back to Sri Lanka were forced into brothels or polygamous households. They have been rescued and brought home to warn others of the dangers of foreign liaisons.
The young mother of a peacekeeper’s child had to send the toddler to live with relatives in the countryside after other children and parents taunted him with the nickname “Little Minustah,” the French acronym for the United Nations mission here.
In the latest sex scandal to tarnish the world organization, at least 114 Sri Lankan troops have been expelled from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti on suspicion of sexual exploitation of Haitian women and girls.
This poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere has endured occupation repeatedly over the centuries, each time suffering instances of statutory rape and economically coerced sexual relations.
But this time, the troops had been sent to protect the country’s people. The United Nations had taken measures to stop such abuse after revelations three years ago that its troops in Congo were having sex with girls in exchange for staples such as eggs and milk or token sums of money.
When the abuses in the Haitian capital’s impoverished Martissant neighborhood were brought to the mission’s attention in August, a unit of the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services was deployed to investigate. Its report to the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York remains confidential, but mission commanders repatriated 111 soldiers and three officers on disciplinary grounds in early November.
MINUSTAH spokesman David Wimhurst said all violators of U.N. ethical policies are swiftly punished.
“The rules are very strict and very clear. There’s a zero-tolerance policy,” he said of the code of conduct to which all of the nearly 9,000 U.N. soldiers, police and civilians deployed in Haiti must adhere.
“You can’t have sex with anybody under 18 or with anybody in exchange for money, services, promises or food.”
The internal U.N. action has inspired Haiti’s fledgling feminist organizations to demand reparations from Sri Lanka and an investigation by Haitian authorities of suspected abuses among the 30-plus national contingents that make up MINUSTAH.
“The Sri Lankan case is the one we are hearing about now, but it’s not the only one,” said Olga Benoit of Haitian Women’s Solidarity, recalling two Pakistani peacekeepers who were expelled two years ago for raping a mentally ill woman in Gonaives and a French policeman disciplined for keeping a prostitute captive. “These are men, soldiers in big vehicles, carrying weapons -- that has a lot of power in a patriarchal society like ours.”
In a country where more than half of the 8.5 million people live on less than a dollar a day, the parents and friends of girls engaging in sex for food or other compensation “tend to close their eyes and pretend nothing is happening,” Benoit said.
Anecdotal reports on the Sri Lankan scandal indicate girls in their early teens were often involved, and that in the poorest areas of the capital the going rate for sex was a dollar.
Young girls have congregated outside peacekeeping posts since the first U.N. troops arrived in the summer of 2004, sometimes begging, other times flirting or practicing a few words of English, French or Spanish. After dark, scores of young girls in skimpy shorts or dresses can be seen loitering in the streets, waving to signal their availability to off-duty soldiers.
Magalie Marcelin of the Women’s Home organization, which is working to educate young Haitian women about their rights and the social risks around them, attributes the MINUSTAH scandal to a long history of Haitians regarding women’s bodies as commodities.
“That a soldier can do this to a girl he’s supposed to be protecting comes from the same mentality that allows a professor to do it to his student or a father to his daughter,” Marcelin said. “In this society, women’s bodies are regarded as meat.”
Despite a successful campaign against the spread of AIDS in Haiti, sex remains a taboo subject. There is no sex education in the schools, and parents remain reluctant to discuss the topic, Benoit said.
Haitians able to scrape together a living blame parental lapses for the incidents of prostitution involving the troops. But they too tend to attribute the sex-for-compensation to their country’s gnawing, unmet needs.
“I know these things happen, and it’s very difficult times for many people,” said Guerde Clerveau, a mother of nine who sculpts wooden artifacts and sells them outside the main base of MINUSTAH. “But I would never allow my daughters to act like that, to sell themselves, even if we were starving.”
As with most nations contributing troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions, the Sri Lankan government retains responsibility for disciplinary action against its soldiers here. Authorities in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, in consultation with the commander of the 950-member Sri Lankan contingent, ordered the repatriations and deployed a high-level investigative team, including a female officer, to determine the extent of the abuses. That inquiry has yet to be completed, said Wimhurst, the MINUSTAH spokesman.
A spokeswoman for the Sri Lankan mission at the United Nations in New York, Mahishini Colonne, said she didn’t know when her government’s investigation would wrap up or who, other than officials in Colombo, would receive the report. She said reparations to Haitian victims was probably “one aspect being considered.”
But a senior diplomat at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington disputed that any compensation was due alleged victims and said the Haitian government was “also to be blamed.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said poverty and the Haitian government’s inability to create opportunities for its citizens led young girls to sell themselves to lonely and homesick soldiers. He also said that the scope of the misconduct had been exaggerated and that some troops who never left their bases were among those identified from photographs by Haitian women.
Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, the Haitian minister of women’s affairs, said she believed the abuses might be more widespread than reported, not less.
The U.N. has not shared its findings with the Haitian government. Lassegue said such a move was a necessary first step for Haitians to gather evidence to pursue reparations and dissuade further misconduct.
She has appealed to Haitian girls and women who have been involved in prohibited relationships with U.N. soldiers to come forward to provide testimony in a legal case to be brought before Sri Lanka and any other offending nations.
“The ones we know about have been traumatized and will need time to heal before they can take part in any campaign to alert others to the dangers,” she said. “We don’t yet have any perspective on the size of the problem, and my worst fear is that there are many others out there we don’t even know about.”