Uncomfortable reading: Burundi, Uganda AU peacekeepers 'sexually exploit & rape vulnerable Somali women'

The youngest victim in the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch was a 12-year-old girl, in allegations that could severely hurt peacekeeping.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a report that documents cases of sexual abuse by African Union Mission to Somalia (Amisom) soldiers, specifically Ugandan and Burundian troops, against displaced Somali women and children. There are accounts of these women being raped, coerced or exploited by the soldiers because of their vulnerable positions.

The report states that since 2013 there were 10 separate incidents of sexual abuse, including rape and sexual assault, and 14 cases of sexual exploitation. The youngest victim in the cases investigated was a 12-year-old girl. Most of the women interviewed were sexually exploited by a single soldier over a period of weeks or months, although there were cases were some had sex with several. 

Titled “The Power These Men Have Over Us”, the report includes 21 interviews of survivors of sexual exploitation and abuses by Amisom soldiers which occurred primarily on two Amisom bases in Mogadishu: the Amisom base camp, largely controlled by the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and the base camp of the Burundi National Defense Force (BNDF) contingent at the compound of the Somali national university. 

These were the bases that the HRW had access to and at a press conference, Laetitia Bader, who helped compile the report, explicitly stated that the lack of information on other Amisom troops was not because these abuses were not happening elsewhere, but because “all testimonies are done in person and HRW did not have access to other parts of the country where they could do ground research.”

Amisom troops were sent into Somalia as a peacekeeping force, operated by the African Union (AU) in Somalia with approval by the United Nations (UN). They are tasked with assisting and training Somalia’s Federal Government soldiers and, among other roles, mandated to assist in creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid. 

These allegations would therefore severely undermine their work as they are expected to act as a model to Somali soldiers, and cannot be relied on to effectively deliver aid –  the report shows that the soldiers used a range of tactics to coerce Somali women and girls into sexual activity including humanitarian aid.

What is of particular concern to the advocacy group is the level of organisation in these incidents of assault or explotiation and that it is not happening in secret. The report states that “in all the incidents documented…Somali intermediaries, often men allegedly working as interpreters either at the entrance of the base camps or in the camp hospitals facilitated soldiers’ access to women and girls.”

In most cases the women were trying to access medicine or humanitarian services. What this demonstrates, HRW said, is a certain level of clearance must have been given to get the girls onto the bases and that it was organised. For the women having regular paid sex with soldiers, they have been able to obtain Amisom badges allowing them easy access in and out of what should be highly secure military zones, the group said.

After the girls got into the bases, there were cases where it was made clear that they had to have sex with the soldier in order to access services – which they did for fear of reprisal or out of desperation, the pressure group said. In other cases the girls were raped. Some women explained that even after the attack that “soldiers gave them food or money…to frame the assault as transactional sex and to discourage the women from complaining to authorities.” 

HRW did make suggestions of action for AU, Amisom, UN and International donors on how to move forward with putting an end to these abuses. They recommend that troop-contributing countries (Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Sierra Leone) hold on-site courts martial in Somalia and carry out thorough background checks on individuals sent to Somalia and ensure those implicated in sexual violations are subjected to disciplinary measures. 

Finalise policy
They urged Amisom to finalise the draft policy on “prevention and response to sexual exploitation and abuse” and requested the AU publish a public annual report on investigations into sexual exploitation and actions taken by AU peace support operations. They also requested that all AMISOM donors including the UN, EU, UK and US raise public concern and urge AU and troop-contributing countries to carry out investigations and, if these are not adequately addressed, that they consider ending military assistance to AU peace support organisations.

However, it was noted there were some fundamental aspects of this situation that will be particularly difficult to tackle. Women and girls are vulnerable in this situation because of a lack of money and food – there would need to be huge investment in vocational training and empowerment of these groups to sustainably prevent them from selling their bodies to the soldiers.

Also, survivors of assault and exploitation need to have clear channels in which they can report these abuses—of the women HRW interviewed only two had ever filed a report a complaint with Somali or other authorities. Many victims do not speak out because they feel powerless, or fear retaliation or the stigma and shame that the abuse could bring. Also, some did not want to lose their only form of income – the report documented that women traded sex for money as a last resort and were earning between $3-$20 a day. Individual soldiers deployed within Amisom are supposed to receive over $1,000 a month in allowances.

Another reason for not speaking out was given as fear of retaliation by al-Shabaab because they are connected to Amisom. One woman told HRW what many women and girls also feel, that “they provide free sex to get food and so on, but what I can tell you is that they are very desperate and they fear Al-Shabaab will kill them. Even their families and relatives may kill them, because they believe they destroyed their honour.”


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