The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the London-based relief agency Save the Children have uncovered widespread sex abuse of children in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea by aid workers. So far, 67 individuals from 40 different agencies have been implicated. The aid workers come from a variety of international and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), UNHCR itself, government aid agencies, and United Nations peacekeeping forces. UNHCR and Save the Children have not yet released the names of the agencies involved, as the investigation is not yet complete. According to the BBC, Save the Children has fired at least three employees, presumably as a result of the investigation.
Most of the victims of sexual abuse were girls between 13 and 18 years old. Abuse appears to have been pervasive in these West African countries. According to one Liberian teenager, “It’s difficult to escape the trap of those people [the aid workers]; they use the food as a bait to get you to sex with them.” According to the investigation, certain aid workers continuously refused to distribute supplies unless girls and young women engaged in sexual activity with them. While the UNHCR/Save the Children report claimed that the allegations of abuse could not be independently confirmed, the BBC reports that the children’s stories were indeed confirmed by adults. One man in Sierra Leone said, “If you do not have a wife or sister or a daughter to offer the NGO workers, it is hard to have access to aid.” Young girls had to trade sex for food, shelter, and educational services. Condoms were rarely used during these encounters, putting the most vulnerable at increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV infection, and unwanted pregnancy.
While the allegations of abuse are shocking, according to Paul Nolan, Child Protection Manager for Save the Children, the problem “has been around for some time. There have been abuses in the past.” UNHCR is now taking steps to address the problem, including an increase in security for refugees and expansion of female staff as well as measures for refugees to raise concerns and complaints about aid workers with senior UNHCR staff.