Sarah Martin with a peacekeeper in Liberia

(WOMENSENEWS)–Refugees International is keeping the spotlight on the sexual conduct of “blue helmets,” the slang term for United Nations peacekeepers.

In a report released Tuesday, the Washington-based advocacy group examines sexual abuse and exploitation within peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Haiti and describes a “hyper-masculine culture that has created tolerance for extreme behavior.”

The problem of U.N. peacekeepers abusing women is not new. It caused a blaze of media and political attention in 2004 when peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo were revealed to be having sex with females as young as 12 in exchange for food, money or jobs.

Peacekeeper contingents there were initially more concerned with protecting their national honor against accusations of sexual abuse than investigating the allegations, according to an internal U.N. document from 2004.

The U.N. General Assembly has given the organization’s independent Office of Internal Oversight Services a mandate to probe all allegations of sexual abuse. Offices are being set up in peacekeeping missions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo a professional team has been investigating allegations since March.

The U.N. acknowledged the extent of sexual abuse in peacekeeping missions in its own far-reaching report last March, which was widely hailed as a frank and critical assessment of sexual misconduct in peacekeeping missions.

“It really went out on a limb and made some bold recommendations,” says Sarah Martin, author of today’s Refugees International report.

Martin, however, says the U.N. peacekeeping culture is not showing enough signs of change. “These problems will persist until the root causes are addressed: the inequity between men and women.”

In preparing the report, Martin interviewed about 100 peacekeepers in three trips to Liberia in 2003 and 2004, and one trip to Haiti early this year. She has also traveled to Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She says many peacekeepers told her that it is inevitable and understandable that men will solicit prostitutes when they are away from home for long periods of time. This, she told Women’s eNews, reflects a male-dominated environment that treats sexual relations between peacekeepers and local women as justified and not worthy of comment.

Vulnerable Women

The Refugees International report describes how war-torn societies such as Haiti and Liberia were marred by sexual violence long before peacekeepers showed up. Economic devastation left women and children without any means of survival, forcing them “to offer the only material asset they have to trade, their bodies, to these peacekeepers.”

Given the economic inequality between U.N. peacekeepers and local women, Martin says, peacekeepers need to see these relationships as a serious misuse of power rather than a matter of consensual sex between equal partners.

“These are desperate people trying to survive, to clothe and feed their families,” Martin says, “and many women don’t see themselves as victims.”

Sexual violence and exploitation characterizes many of the world’s conflicts and both activists and U.N. officials say peacekeepers are supposed to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

“To take advantage of your position of power and influence like that is particularly egregious,” says Milkah Kihunah, who monitors peacekeeping missions for the New York-based Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. “It’s a developmental challenge that falls to the international community and donors as well as the U.N.”

Allegations for Past 15 Years

Over the past 15 years, allegations of sexual abuse have been made against peacekeepers in each of the U.N.’s peacekeeping missions, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Liberia.

Tuesday’s report argues for applying the principles of Resolution 1325, which the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted five years ago on Oct. 31, 2000.

That resolution called on U.N. agencies to integrate a gender lens into all of their activities in order to address the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women and to better understand the gender implications of peacekeepers’ work.

Sarah Martin in Liberia, wearing a U.N. blue peacekeeping helmet

Martin suggests more micro-finance and income-generating projects targeted at women to help alleviate peacekeeping abuse. She said the displaced and refugee women she spoke to in Liberia and Haiti overwhelmingly ask for assistance in starting their own businesses.

The U.N.’s own report in March recommended establishing professional investigative units to pursue allegations of misconduct and collect evidence, and on-site courts-martial to prosecute soldiers. It also recommended holding managers and commanders accountable for the behavior of their troops.

Martin, however, questions whether enough human and financial resources will be allocated to implement those recommendations and says the United Nations has had difficulty filling key positions to receive and oversee reports of sexual exploitation and abuse in a timely manner.

New U.N. Measures

The United Nations has instituted a number of new measures to fight abuse in recent months, according to Anna Shotton of the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

In August it announced that eight of its 18 peacekeeping missions would establish specific units to ensure that all incoming peacekeeping personnel are trained on what constitutes sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as reinforce the idea that such behavior is a serious disciplinary offense. They will also set up systems to receive complaints of abuse, review and verify the facts, and forward them to the U.N.’s internal investigators.

The U.N. official added that the new conduct and discipline units in the eight missions–including Liberia, Haiti and Sudan–are at different stages of recruitment. A number of missions have also set up hotlines and e-mail accounts to receive complaints.

Units for the 10 remaining missions are planned for 2006.

Martin, however, worries that the United Nations is focusing too much on conduct and discipline at the expense of putting more women in its ranks.

In 2004 only 4.4 percent of civilian police and 1 percent of military personnel working in peacekeeping missions were women, and women were only 27.5 percent of civilian personnel. The report argues that, as a consequence, a “boys will be boys” mentality toward sexual abuse has evolved in peacekeeping missions.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Kihunah agrees. “The presence of women in peacekeeping missions makes men adapt their behaviors and brings a gender perspective to relations with the local community,” she said.

Martin cautions that just having more women on missions won’t necessarily prevent sexual misconduct, as the involvement of women in the U.S. military abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shows.

She emphasizes that male as well as female peacekeepers need to be concerned with how women are affected by the mission and by armed conflict in general.

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.

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For more information:

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom:

Sex-Assault Continues Unchecked in Congo: