Sex abuse allegations against aid workers in South Sudan UN camp

Accounts of sexual abuse committed by aid workers at a camp run by the UN in South Sudan first surfaced in 2015, two years after the country's civil war erupted. Seven years on, such reports have not only continued, but they recently increased, an investigation by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera found.

The revelations come at a tense time, with the UN estimating that as many as 5,000 displaced people may be headed towards the camp in Malakal soon and current residents worrying that this influx may increase the incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA). They say these incidents have gone largely unchecked despite a UN-led task force charged with tackling the problem.

Residents also worry that the recent violence that these people are fleeing will seep into the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site - recent clashes between Shilluk and Nuer tribespeople in the camp have already flared up.

Aid workers who have worked at the PoC site told reporters that accounts of abuse began trickling in shortly after the camp opened in late 2013, but The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera's investigation found that the scale of abuse has since grown, according to aid workers, camp residents, and victims. Reporters also analysed several UN and NGO documents.

One woman said she became pregnant in 2019 by a local World Food Programme (WFP) worker - although the relationship was consensual, most aid groups, including WFP, ban sexual relationships with aid beneficiaries because of the stark power imbalances between aid workers and aid beneficiaries. She told reporters in December 2021 that she is so worried about the continuing sexual abuse that she is putting her eldest daughter, now 15, on birth control.

A teenager said she was 15 when a local World Vision worker raped and impregnated her. Fearful of her future, she said she tried to hang herself before deciding to leave the camp in an attempt 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.

The women's allegations tally with those of other camp residents - testimonies that were detailed in a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) report sent to humanitarian agencies on October 5, 2020, and shared with The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera by an aid worker who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals.

In the report, residents said sexual exploitation was experienced “on a daily basis”, mostly perpetrated by humanitarian workers; UN and NGO workers were renting houses in the camp to have sex with women, and UN peacekeepers were paying bribes to gain access to women. Camp residents also said that three girls had been raped and impregnated by a teacher in 2018. Some schools in the camp are supported by UN agencies and NGOs.

Further accounts of abuse continued for at least 18 months after the release of the report.

"I received with greatest alarm information on the increased incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) in Malakal Protection of Civilians (POC) site," Sara Beysolow Nyanti, deputy head of South Sudan's UN peacekeeping mission, stated in a March 21, 2022, letter sent to some 17 aid organisations working in the camp, as well as several camp coordination groups. A copy of the letter, which was not made public, was obtained by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera.

Nyanti, who assumed her role in January 2022, said the reported increase was noted during a meeting with humanitarian partners in the Malakal PoC, which now hosts some 37,000 people.

She told reporters in an email on August 12 that tackling such abuse is one of her "top priorities", but she did not offer comment on why past strategies may have fallen short.

The reference to an increase, even if aid officials declined to give information on specific cases or were unable to provide a fuller picture, offers a rare glimpse into a grossly underreported problem, and one that comes up around the UN and aid sector often.

Aid groups acknowledged that hurdles remain in tackling such abuse. Their representatives told reporters they are working towards increasing awareness about what constitutes exploitation and how to report it. Measures include holding talks with the community, broadcasting messages over the radio, and sharing hotline numbers to raise awareness.

Although some women said sex was consensual, they also told reporters that they had no other means of supporting themselves or their families without the money or gifts the men provided. They said they feared if they stopped having sex with the aid workers, support would stop.

"Sexual exploitation and abuse is a consequence of the broader abuse of power and gender inequality, which is entrenched in existing social and institutional structures and practices," Peterson Magoola, a spokesperson for UN Women told reporters in an email. 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 one's position of power, using vulnerability or trust, for sexual purposes. It forbids it because it is based on unequal relationships, noting any kind of transaction for sex – such as providing gifts or offering support – reflects this unequal power balance.

"Consent is irrelevant; even if someone accepts a gift or support ... the transaction is still considered exploitative," reads a guide.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's office did not respond to a request for comment on the The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera's investigation in time for publication.

The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan opened its bases to more than 200,000 people at the onset of the war in 2013 – an unprecedented move in the history of UN peacekeeping missions and one that was credited with saving thousands of lives. Malakal, which was intended to be a temporary refuge, was one of those sites.

Other civilian camps across the country were under UN protection until last year when all except Malakal were placed under government control.

Due to heightened ethnic and political tensions in the town of Malakal – and continued fighting between government-backed forces and the opposition – the PoC site was deemed too risky to redesignate and has remained under UN control.

Despite the challenges of operating in South Sudan, including access constraints, insecurity and funding cuts, the chronology of events at Malakal suggests a litany of systemic failures and missed opportunities by the aid sector and a deep betrayal for vulnerable women and girls who sought refuge in the camp.

"The people sexually exploiting and abusing women in [protection sites] are the very people meant to serve and protect them; their entire lives depend on services from these same aid workers," said Aluel Atem, a South Sudanese development economist and feminist activist who has researched and written about gender-based violence in South Sudan.

Complicating matters are the cultural, political and gender dynamics in South Sudan.

"At a community level, [sexual exploitation and abuse] is not being perceived as a violation of individual women or children's rights but rather as a violation of property for which the family should obtain compensation or secure marriage for their daughters," reads a strategy report for the UN-led task force's mandate for 2018-2021.

Although the UN and most international NGOs ban sexual relationships with aid beneficiaries, several local aid workers who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs said they should be allowed to have relationships with women in the camp. Some said it was one of the only ways to find a wife and start a family.

Many local aid workers live in the camp amongst residents and have themselves also been displaced or traumatised by the war, which has killed nearly 400,000 people.

Despite a fragile peace deal that was signed in 2018 – the second such agreement – gender-based violence has continued to surge in South Sudan.

Adeyinka Badejo, WFP's acting director and co-chair of the national UN-led task force that aims to prevent such abuses, said in a written response to reporters that some efforts to prevent sexual abuse had also been disrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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