Multiple women and girls were sexually abused and exploited by United Nations-backed troops with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), according to a new Human Rights Watch report issued Monday morning.
HRW found 21 cases of “sexual exploitation and abuse” by AMISOM soldiers between 2013 and 2014 alone, including instances of gang rape. Most acts of sexual violence occurred when women and girls sought out “medicine or humanitarian services” at an AMISOM base in Mogadishu staffed by soldiers from Burundi. In many instances, soldiers offered food or money to make sexual encounters appear transactional, and all of the attacks happened when Somali intermediaries, acting as interpreters, brought girls to base camps or camp hospitals for soldiers stationed there:
In January 2014, Ayanna S., a displaced person, went to the Burundian X-Control base on a Monday to get medicine for her sick baby. A Somali interpreter working at the base told her to come back alone without her baby. When she returned the next day that the outpatient clinic was opened to the public, the same Somali man called her and three other young women over to a fenced area next to some sandbags. There, six uniformed Burundian men were waiting. Ayanna S. said the soldiers held them at gunpoint, dragged them into a bunker area, and threatened them. The Burundian soldiers then beat and raped the women, badly injuring one.
AMISOM first began its mission in Somalia in 2007, when the African Union Peace and Security Council sent a peacekeeping force consisting of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Djibouti, and Sierra Leone. Its presence has grown tremendously over the past seven years as its role has shifted from helping push back against a group known as the Islamic Courts Union, which controlled parts of the country, to countering the threat from al-Shabaab. The terrorist group, which has declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda, has waned and ebbed in the amount of territory it controls, but continues to launch attacks into neighboring Kenya, as well as detonating suicide bombs and coordinating assaults against Somali government institutions and civilians.
The peacekeepers assigned to care for the civilian population aren’t alone in taking advantage of the chaotic situation on the ground in Somalia. Gender-based violence is a prevalent issue throughout Somalia, where women and girls are frequently attacked by state-backed security forces that “sexually assault, rape, beat, shoot, and stab” those in and around displacement camps. A substantial portion of the 369,000 displaced persons in the capital city of Mogadishu, the primary focus of the latest HRW report, are women and girls. Broken community structures, families, and patriarchal values render women and girls particularly susceptible to violence, HRW has argued.
AMISOM soldiers are legally prohibited from committing sexually exploitative or abuse acts, according to the African Union Commission Code of Conduct. But according to reports from on the ground, women and girls having sex with soldiers in exchange for goods is widespread. Oftentimes, they do so in order to provide for their families in the displacement camps.
The presence of Somalis in refugee and displacement camps has been prevalent since 1991, when the country’s president, Siad Barre, was overthrown. The resulting civil war and rise of competing warlords plunged the nation into a failed-state status that it is only just beginning to emerge from. In 2012, an internationally approved formal parliament was established, and countries like the United States have finally begun to send diplomatic support back into Mogadishu. But the havoc wreaked on Somali citizens in the period of lawlessness and chaos, during which Somalis suffered from famine, natural disasters, and large-scale violence, displaced citizens and led to one of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world — one which continues today.
The African Union released a response to HRW’s report, claiming the “allegations will be thoroughly investigated, and appropriate measures will be taken if they are found to be true, through the relevant mechanisms that have been developed by the AU to prevent and respond to issues of misconduct and abuse in peace support operations, in accordance with the AU’s zero-tolerance policy on this matter.” The AU also pushed back on what it referred to as the “imbalance, inaccuracies and partial view” contained in the report and emphasized the reforms already put into place to prevent soldier’s misconduct in the field.