Abuse of Power: Sexual Exploitation of Refugee Women and Girls

Elizabeth Ferris

The fact that refugee and displaced women and children are particularly vulnerable to violence has been widely acknowledged by the international community over the past twenty years. Sexual violence is frequently used as a tool of war; thus, women flee their communities because of sexual and gender-based violence. Too often, they encounter violence and exploitation in their flight to safety—at the hands of warlords, soldiers, armed gangs, and border guards. In refugee and displaced persons camps, they are vulnerable to violence when they search for firewood and food. With the breakdown in social norms, they are at increased risk of domestic and community violence. When humanitarian relief in the form of food and other necessities is insufficient for their families, they sometimes turn to prostitution. But in the past few years, there has been growing awareness of sexual exploitation by a different group of perpetrators: humanitarian workers who are charged with protecting and assisting refugees and the displaced.

 In February 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children UK released a report entitled “Sexual Violence and Exploitation: The Experience of Refugee Children in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.” Written by staff from both organizations, the report was intended to investigate sexual violence and exploitation in the region, including its extent, causes, and consequences, and to make recommendations for future action. The study was based on interviews with and focus groups of refugee and displaced children, as well as adult refugees, community leaders, and humanitarian workers, in these three countries. A total of 1,500 people were interviewed by the researchers, mostly in groups.

The researchers found that not only was sexual exploitation widespread, it was also perpetrated by aid workers, peacekeepers, and community leaders. Humanitarian workers traded food and relief items for sexual favors. Teachers in schools in the camps exploited children in exchange for passing grades. Medical care and medicines were given in return for sex. Some forty-two agencies and sixty-seven individuals were implicated in this behavior. Parents pressured their children to enter sexually exploitative relationships in order to secure relief items for the family.

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