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Accounts of sexual abuse by aid workers at a UN-run camp in South Sudan first surfaced in 2015, two years after the civil war erupted. Seven years on, such reports not only continue but have recently increased, an investigation by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera found.
At a glance: Aid worker sexual abuse allegations at Malakal
- Abuse was known by aid officials as early as 2015; some victims were minors
- IOM, MSF, WFP, World Vision workers were named as alleged perpetrators
- Despite a UN task force, strategies to stop the abuse fell short
- Lack of victim support was cited in an external review
- Camp residents said UN peacekeepers paid bribes for access to women
- Power disparities and gender dynamics contributed to the exploitation
The revelations come at a worrying time. UN officials say up to 5,000 more people may be headed toward the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Malakal, fleeing violence that has killed as many as 300 people, some of whom drowned in a river as they tried to escape the fighting.
Camp residents say they fear the new violence could seep into the UN camp – recent clashes between ethnic Shilluk and Nuer in the camp have already flared. If the camp becomes more crowded, residents worry there may be more cases of sexual abuse and exploitation, which they say has gone largely unchecked despite a UN-led task force charged with tackling the problem.
Accounts of abuse began trickling in shortly after the camp opened in late 2013, but the scale of abuse has grown, according to aid workers, camp residents, and victims interviewed by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera, as well as analysis of UN and NGO documents.
One woman said she became pregnant in 2019 by a local World Food Programme (WFP) worker. Although the relationship was consensual, most aid groups, including WFP, ban sexual relationships between aid workers and beneficiaries because of the stark power imbalances. The woman told reporters in December 2021 she was so worried about the continuing sexual abuse that she was putting her eldest daughter, now 15, on birth control.
Another woman said she was 15 when a local World Vision worker raped and impregnated her. Fearful of her future, she said she tried to hang herself before deciding to leave the camp in an attempt to build a better life.
World Vision said it was opening an immediate investigation into the woman’s case, while WFP said it could not comment on specific cases.
These women’s allegations tally with those of other camp residents – testimonies that were detailed in a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) report sent to humanitarian agencies on 5 October 2020 and shared with The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera by an aid worker who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisals.
In the report, residents said sexual exploitation, mostly perpetrated by humanitarian workers, was being experienced “on a daily basis”; UN and NGO workers were renting houses in the camp to have sex with women; and UN peacekeepers were paying bribes to gain access to women. Camp residents also said three girls had been raped and impregnated by a teacher in 2018 – some schools in the camp are supported by UN agencies and NGOs.
Further accounts of abuse continued for at least 18 months after the release of the report. “I received with greatest alarm information on the increased incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation in Malakal Protection of Civilians site,” Sara Beysolow Nyanti, deputy head of South Sudan’s UN peacekeeping mission, stated in a 21 March 2022 letter sent to some 17 aid organisations working in the camp, as well as camp coordination groups. A copy of the letter, which was not made public, was obtained by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera.
Nyanti, who assumed her role in January 2022, said the reported increase had been noted during a meeting with humanitarian partners in Malakal, which now hosts some 37,000 people.
She told reporters in a 12 August email that tackling such abuse is one of her “top priorities”, but she did not offer comment on why past strategies may have fallen short.
The reference to an increase, even if aid officials declined to give information on specific cases or were unable to provide a fuller picture, offers a rare glimpse into a grossly underreported problem, and one that continues to dog the UN and aid sector.
Aid groups acknowledged that hurdles remain in tackling such abuse. Their representatives told reporters they are working towards increasing awareness about what constitutes exploitation and how to report it. Measures include holding talks with the community, broadcasting messages over the radio, and sharing hotline numbers to raise awareness.
Although some women said sex was consensual, they also told reporters they had little other means of supporting themselves or their families without money or gifts the men provided. They said they feared if they stopped having sex with the aid workers, support would stop.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse is a consequence of the broader abuse of power and gender inequality, which is entrenched in existing social and institutional structures and practices,” Peterson Magoola, a spokesperson for UN Women, told reporters in an email. UN Women has co-chaired the task force since 2018.
According to the UN, sexual exploitation is defined as any actual or attempted abuse of one's position of power, using vulnerability or trust, for sexual purposes. It forbids it because it is based on unequal relationships, noting any kind of transaction for sex – such as providing gifts or offering support – reflects this unequal power balance.
"Consent is irrelevant; even if someone accepts a gift or support... the transaction is still considered exploitative," reads a guide.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera’s investigation in time for publication.
The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan opened its bases to more than 200,000 people at the onset of the war in 2013 – an unprecedented move in the history of UN peacekeeping missions that was credited with saving thousands of lives. Malakal was one of those sites, and was intended as a temporary refuge.
Other civilian camps across the country were under UN protection until last year, when all except Malakal were placed under government control.
Due to heightened ethnic and political tensions around the town of Malakal – and continued fighting between government-backed forces and the opposition – the PoC site there was deemed too risky to redesignate and has remained under UN control.
Despite the challenges of operating in South Sudan, including access constraints, insecurity, and funding cuts, the chronology of events at Malakal suggests a litany of systemic failures and missed opportunities by the aid sector. It also amounts to a deep betrayal for vulnerable women and girls who sought refuge in the camp.
“The people sexually exploiting and abusing women in [protection sites] are the very people meant to serve and protect them; their entire lives depend on services from these same aid workers,” said Aluel Atem, a South Sudanese development economist and feminist activist who has researched and written about gender-based violence in South Sudan.
Complicating matters are the cultural, political, and gender dynamics in South Sudan.
“At a community level, [sexual exploitation and abuse] is not being perceived as a violation of individual women or children’s rights but rather as a violation of property for which the family should obtain compensation or secure marriage for their daughters,” reads a strategy report for the UN-led task force’s mandate for 2018-2021.
Although the UN and most international NGOs ban sexual relationships with aid beneficiaries, several local aid workers, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs, said they should be allowed to have relationships with women in the camp. Some said it was one of the only ways to find a wife and start a family.
Many local aid workers live in the camp amongst residents and have themselves also been displaced or traumatised by war.
Despite a fragile peace agreement signed in 2018 – the second such accord to try to end a civil war that has killed nearly 400,000 people – gender-based violence has continued to surge in South Sudan.
Adeyinka Badejo, WFP’s acting country director and the co-chair of the UN-led task force that aims to prevent such abuses, said in a written response to reporters that some prevention efforts had also been disrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shortly after a UN sex abuse scandal involving children in Central African Republic was exposed in 2015, UN Secretary-General António Guterres vowed sweeping reforms to stamp out sexual abuse and exploitation.
One of those measures was to implement dedicated task forces to tackle the problem.
The initial framework for a UN-led task force was initiated in 2007 to deal with sexual abuse and exploitation across South Sudan, but it was revamped in 2016, and to be led by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women.
In 2018 – the same year UN peacekeepers were alleged to have raped two girls in South Sudan – it was revamped again with the injection of $660,000 – $90,000 a year for the coordinator’s salary each year and $100,000 for victim assistance. The Malakal task force was only established in October 2021 – nearly eight years after the site was opened and after year upon year of cases being reported and concerns raised.
Like all such task forces, the South Sudan unit does not carry out its own investigations and lacks the capacity to assess whether UN agencies or NGOs conduct adequate investigations. Its primary function is that of a clearinghouse that also provides training on sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment.
Here is a look at other task forces around the world, according to Global Dashboard, which tracks inter-agency measures designed to prevent and tackle sexual abuse.
DRC: One the largest budgeted task forces is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a sex abuse scandal involving aid workers during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak was uncovered by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The 2020-2023 task force budget was more than $2.5 million. According to the Global Dashboard, $1.5 million was allocated for 2021.
Sudan: The estimated budget for 2019 to 2020 was $850,000. Like most task force funding, the money comes from a variety of donor countries, organisations, and funding pools. According to the dashboard, the taskforce received $370,000 in 2021.
Central African Republic: The plan comes to around $500,000, but an overall total and information of funding breakdowns weren’t immediately clear. This was one sex abuse scandal that made headlines around the world and proved a major embarrassment to the UN. More than 130 women and girls accused UN peacekeepers of sexual abuse and exploitation. An independent panel found that the UN’s lack of response allowed abuse – some of which involved young children – to occur and continue.
Palestine: This task force was established in the occupied territories in April 2018. In 2020, it was entirely funded by UNICEF for $500,000, close to the three-year budget for the South Sudan task force.
Mali: Its three-year budget for 2019-21 was $330,000. According to the Global Dashboard, only $70,000 was allocated in 2021. Since 2015, there have been several sexual abuse or exploitation allegations against personnel linked to the UN’s MINUSMA peacekeeping mission, according to the UN database.
Afghanistan: This task force was established in 2016. Funding was roughly $30,000 in 2021.
An external mid-term review of the UN-led task force between August 2018 and December 2020 noted concerns over providing survivor care, ensuring the safety and protection of survivors and witnesses, and a lack of uniform standards on how risks are mitigated amongst NGOs and UN agencies. The report, which also noted uneven data collection between UN agencies and NGOs, was shared by an aid worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
The review also found that only one third of the cases between August 2018 and December 2020 were provided with victim assistance, and less than half were closed within a year. The report did not offer a total number of cases during that period.
In the course of a week, The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera spoke to several women in the camp who said they were sexually abused or exploited by aid workers, and reporters also obtained nearly a dozen documents that show the UN and other aid groups knew about the problem for years.
Reporters also spoke to aid workers who had worked in the camp early on, and who said the scale of the problem had grown worse over the years. Although there was no central system to prevent, log, and tackle cases of sexual abuse and exploitation when the camp was set up in late 2013, they said organisations began hearing of such reports as early as 2015.
By 2018, alarms were sounded that the overcrowded camp was particularly risky for women and girls, in part due to aid workers having “inadequate knowledge of policies and procedures”, according to a planning document for the UN-led task force. The document was shared with reporters by an aid worker who asked for anonymity because they were not authorised to share it.
Talk of sexual exploitation in Malakal had become so pervasive by 2019 that local musicians invited to play at a Christmas party sang about it in Shilluk, their language, chiding aid workers for “flashing their VHF radios and exploiting poor women”, according to one foreign aid worker in attendance, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
By 2020, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) – an NGO working in the camp – had noted the lack of progress on the issue, according to a confidential 2020 report from DRC shared by an aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitive nature of its contents.
It said DRC was concerned that the UN-led task force in Malakal had become less effective between 2019 and 2020 when there was staff turnover, that community groups and aid workers were worried about a lack of follow-up on cases, and that complainants had been kept in the dark about progress on cases.
In its report, the DRC also noted the potential risk from UN peacekeepers.
The Malakal camp is just steps away from the UN peacekeeping base. UN peacekeepers stand guard at the entrance of the camp and periodically patrol it.
“Research has shown that environments with a high proximity of military forces, including those deployed as United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, present a heightened risk of SEA for vulnerable populations,” the DRC report said. It also noted that long deployments of peacekeeping forces in a confined environment with regular camp access, coupled with a lack of criminal justice systems and training, posed a higher risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.
James Curtis, the Danish Refugee Council’s executive director in East Africa and the Great Lakes, told reporters in an email on 16 August 2022 that DRC had long called for measures to be reinforced, and referred to the reports of abuse as “hugely disturbing”.
“This is a very important story to be told, and DRC is committed to being a part of the solution,” Curtis said, adding that DRC recorded four reports of sexual misconduct in Malakal from 2015 to 2018. One was proven, but Curtis provided no details, citing legal and confidentiality issues.
Between 2013 and 2018, reporting and logging allegations involving both NGOs and UN agencies countrywide was patchy. The extended mandate of the task force in 2018 was supposed to have changed that.
Since 2019, there have been a total of 28 logged allegations in all of South Sudan, Badejo, the co-chair of the task force, told reporters in January. Eight were in Malakal.
But the actual scale of the abuse is likely to be larger. In the space of roughly a week, one reporter was able to find seven women in Malakal who were willing to share their stories. It was unclear if those cases were part of the eight that Badejo noted.
Community leaders, women’s activists, healthcare workers, and aid workers told reporters they knew of even more cases, suggesting the abuse was widespread and vastly underreported.
Most of the women said they knew the men’s names.
One woman told The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera she feared for the safety of her 13-year-old daughter, saying that a local Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff security guard tried to rape the girl in October 2021.
She said the MSF worker dragged her off the street and into his house, only relenting when his wife pushed him away and tried to help the girl.
She said she escalated the case to local police, who issued a letter demanding the man be brought to town, but that community chiefs then threatened anyone who turned him in, saying they would be responsible for whatever happened to him.
Some cases of abuse are sometimes covered up by men paying money, proposing marriage, or giving the family a dowry, said Josephina James, assistant head for the women’s group in the camp that holds regular meetings to discuss such abuse and other concerns.
“It’s the consequence of men with money,” the girl’s mother told reporters.
MSF said its worker was suspended for a month while it conducted an internal assessment.
The man was then allowed to return to work.
Leaders in the community – South Sudan’s society is largely patriarchal – took the side of the man, who accused the mother and girl of lying, the mother said.
“Our primary concern was for the wellbeing of the child, and MSF offered immediate medical care and psychological support,” Malika Ait, ethics and behaviour lead at MSF, told The New Humanitarian. “We then quickly opened an internal investigation, but we did not find any evidence to substantiate the allegations. Throughout the process, we provided support and communicated all steps to the family. If new information surfaces, MSF will immediately reopen an investigation into this case.”
Three of the victims who spoke with reporters said they were minors when the events occurred, between 2017 and 2021.
One was the 15-year-old – 17 when reporters spoke to her in January – who said she was raped in 2019 by a local World Vision worker.
She said once the man was alone with her, he covered her mouth so she wouldn’t make noise during the rape. She said her economic circumstances were dire, so she continued having sex with him, four more times before she became pregnant. Feeling trapped and desperate, she tried to hang herself before finding the courage to leave the camp to seek a better life for herself and young daughter.
“What went through my mind was that my mother had no work and no money, and so I decided to continue sleeping with him to help support the family,” she said, adding that the man refused to take any responsibility for her daughter.
Many women said they had sex because the men promised to marry them. Others said they were afraid that if they refused, the money and gifts that were often used to help their families – such as mobile phones – would stop.
“Based on an initial review, no allegation of this nature in this location has been made to us before,” World Vision Country Director Mesfin Loha said in a statement emailed to The New Humanitarian on 12 July. “The investigation will be conducted with global oversight, given the seriousness of the claim that a staff member may have sexually abused a child.”
That investigation is still ongoing.
The mother who said she was putting her eldest daughter on birth control also recalled her own pregnancy by a local WFP worker in 2019.
WFP told The New Humanitarian that since 2019 it had received six allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against WFP staff in South Sudan – two in 2019, one in 2020, and three in 2021. It was unclear whether the case of the woman becoming pregnant was among them.
“Investigations are ongoing and we are unable to comment on specific cases,” said Badejo, the country director and co-chair of the UN-led task force. She said there had been no cases against WFP staff in 2022.
Tensions have been high for years in the camp, where locals compete for scarce jobs in the aid industry – a reality compounded by poverty, an outsized dependence on aid, and a lack of government investment in addressing the country’s many humanitarian problems.
In a recent UN report, South Sudan was ranked as having one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, at just 55 years.
Some women who used to cultivate land before the war told The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera they’re still too afraid to leave the camp for fear of being raped by soldiers or militias.
Those who are able to find work can spend 12 hours a day earning little more than $1, serving tea in shops, braiding hair, or selling charcoal.
Those who can’t find work are reliant on family members and the aid sector, making them even more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
One 25-year-old woman said she became pregnant in 2017 by a South Sudanese aid worker who said he worked for the UN’s migration agency, IOM.
When the man abandoned her after she gave birth, she said she reported the case directly to IOM. But since a meeting in August 2021 with an IOM representative who took DNA samples, she said she hasn’t heard anything.
“They asked where and when I met him, how much he paid, and if [he was taking care of] the child,” she said. “But I’ve had no contact since then.”
Another woman, now 21, said that when she was 16, a man who said he worked for IOM offered her necklaces and gifts in exchange for sex – items her father, who worked at a school in the camp, couldn’t afford. She said he cut all ties months after she gave birth to his child.
“I forced myself to have sex with him so he wouldn’t question why he was giving me gifts and money,” said the woman.
IOM, which said it had received 11 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against its workers in Malakal since 2017, said two of them involved paternity claims but that it couldn’t comment on the women who spoke to reporters, due to having insufficient information.
IOM also adheres to strict policies to protect complainants when dealing with paternity complaints, according to IOM spokesperson Safa Msehli.
In two cases, in 2021 and 2022, one allegation was closed for lack of evidence; while the other was referred for potential disciplinary action, Msehli said, adding that sexual relations between UN staff and beneficaries are prohibited.
*In both of the paternity claims, IOM staff voluntarily submitted DNA samples, and tests were negative, IOM said.
Problems and solutions
One of the overriding complaints from camp residents in Malakal has been inaction over cases and the absence of justice.
The woman who said an MSF worker tried to rape her daughter said community leaders took the side of the aid worker because he had status and power.
Another case mentioned by camp residents was that of a camp teacher who impregnated at least one student.
War Child Canada – which oversaw some school programmes in the camp – confirmed that a volunteer teacher had impregnated an 18-year-old student in 2019. It said it had dismissed the project director for not reporting it and also dismissed the teacher – after an investigation. War Child Canada’s Country Director Emmanuel Gumbiri said it only learned of the incident in 2020, after UNICEF reported it.
The girl’s parents also took the case to a community tribunal, and in the end the parents agreed for the teacher to marry the girl, while the teacher was ordered to give the family a number of cows as dowry, Gumbiri said in a 17 August 2022 email.
“Failing to punish offenders adequately undermines confidence in the system and makes people less willing to report violations they’ve experienced or witnessed,” said Nina Masore, who works for Equality Now, which campaigns for the end of sexual and gender-based violence.
Although aid officials have often fired workers if sexual abuse cases are found to be substantiated, referring cases like rape for criminal prosecution is more difficult.
Since 2016, the UN has referred only two cases to South Sudan’s government, according to a UN database. South Sudanese officials did not respond to multiple attempts to be reached for comment.
In the meantime, Nyanti, deputy head of the UN peacekeeping mission, has put UN agencies and aid groups in Malakal on notice.
“I request a review of your internal arrangements to further enhance sensitisation of aid personnel on these international commitments and raise awareness on PSEA (prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse), policies, standards, and code of conduct on PSEA,” she wrote in a March 2022 letter to these organisations, shared with reporters by an aid worker.
Aid groups in Malakal told reporters they would investigate cases that had been uncovered, and said they are constantly working to bolster measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse.
More broadly, many aid organisations have also vowed to increase the number of women aid workers they employ, although nearly a dozen groups working in South Sudan did not disclose the current numbers when contacted by reporters via email in August.
While the fate of the Malakal camp is unclear – there has been more talk of potentially turning over control to South Sudan’s government – aid groups say they are committed to providing a “survivor-centred approach”.
But for many women who fled South Sudan’s war, justice and accountability are even harder to come by when the means of survival are often provided by aid agencies and NGOs, according to Atem, the South Sudanese feminist activist.
“It’s not a matter of having beautifully written zero tolerance policies,” she said. “They must serve and protect victims and survivors without any compromises.”
(*For clarification at the request of IOM, this line was added shortly after publication to state that two IOM staff voluntarily submitted to DNA tests, which were negative for paternity.)
Mednick and Craze reported from South Sudan. Three translators, who asked not to be named to protect their identities, also contributed to this story from South Sudan. Paisley Dodds ([email protected]; @paisleydodds) reported and edited from London.
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