Arria, 16, lives in a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the Nigerian city at the centre of Boko Haram’s insurgency. She fled her village two years ago when insurgents attacked, losing her family as she fled. She has no money, and seldom enough to eat. Nine months ago, a soldier guarding the camp followed her to her tent. He told her she would be his “friend” and that he would look after her. He visited her regularly at night, sometimes bringing food, money, or gifts. Three months ago, Arria discovered she was pregnant. On his next visit, she told the soldier her news. She hasn’t seen him since.
I worked on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse in northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. With 1.7 million people displaced and 8.5 million in need of humanitarian aid, the population is highly vulnerable to abuse.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse” – the term for abuse by humanitarian aid workers over their beneficiaries, including through exchanging food, money, or aid for sex – has garnered significant public attention. Following international outcry over some highly publicised cases (including the abuse of children by peacekeepers in Central African Republic and recent reports of exploitation in Haiti) aid organisations have taken steps to combat sexual exploitation and abuse — known in the humanitarian sector as SEA. Dedicated funding has been sourced, targeted programmes and task forces established, experts flown in. Suspected cases of SEA are investigated, perpetrators held accountable and assistance provided to their victims – persons seen as wronged by the humanitarian system at large.
SEA has become a category unto itself, with its response often separated from other types of gender violence – or from violence perpetrated by soldiers or others present in humanitarian settings, who are not employed by humanitarian organisations.
It is here, I feel, that we have lost our way. In frantic – often externally imposed – interventions that detach SEA from wider gender violence, we are failing to address the roots of this problem in a way that can truly prevent women from being harmed. In the programmatic streamlining, we’ve lost sight of the basic message that men should not harm women, period, and that harm, by any men, must be dealt with.
Hired by a humanitarian organisation in Nigeria to put measures in place to prevent and respond to SEA, I toured the sites where those fleeing Boko Haram are encamped. I asked camp women about sexual exploitation: “Who is perpetrating it?” “Where is it happening?” They all said the same thing: Sexual exploitation is happening, extensively. And, frequently, soldiers are the perpetrators.
I heard countless stories of soldiers with camp “girlfriends”, whom they repaid with gifts and food. I heard of a ring sneaking girls out of a camp to a nearby hotel to sexually service armed men. I was told of screening sites, where those responsible said, “Unless you sleep with me, I will mark you down as being Boko Haram and you will be imprisoned.” It’s an issue that is known about and reported on. Yet, I was there to address SEA by humanitarian workers – not by military personnel. Exploitation by soldiers was not categorised as SEA, so did not fall under my mandate.
What complicates matters is that in northeast Nigeria, the military is intrinsically involved in the provision of aid. Humanitarian convoys travel with mandatory military escorts. Soldiers guard displaced persons camps. A military-affiliated civilian vigilante group guards aid distributions and ensures order. Security personnel are present in the camps, taking part in humanitarian actions, with access to beneficiary populations. Surely, if military personnel are involved in humanitarian-type roles, to the extent that they exploit these roles, this should be treated as SEA?
The opposite approach is often taken. In Nigeria, sexual exploitation, when perpetrated by military personnel, is not considered SEA, but regarded as “regular” gender-based violence. There’s a system in place to refer, investigate, report, and act on SEA cases involving humanitarians. Cases with non-humanitarian (i.e. military) perpetrators do not fall under that system. Instead, they are to be dealt with by organisations and bodies engaging in “regular” gender-violence work – who, amongst other things, should report soldiers’ abuse to the military, for it to address internally.
In practice, however, exploitation cases by soldiers are seldom dealt with by the humanitarian sector, as there are far too many cases and (while serious cases of rape might be reported) the military is too complex an institution to even know where to begin reporting a case of a soldier with a camp “girlfriend”. Some work is being done with the military, advocating for improved response, reporting and investigating on abuse by soldiers, yet this remains at an early stage.
The practical results felt unsatisfying.
One day, I travelled to a camp to investigate a series of reports. Each case had almost identical narratives: a desperately poor camp woman had begun a relationship with a man in some position of power. Some of the men worked for aid organisations, some for camp management, some for armed forces. Each woman was now pregnant.
Those women whose “lovers” were humanitarians we could help; we could ensure the cases were investigated and perpetrators disciplined, and we could support the provision of assistance for them and their unborn children. Those who were involved with soldiers, we could not help – we did not have a workable system to engage the military on these cases, and the women were not entitled to assistance, since it hadn’t been the humanitarian sector that had wronged them. Almost identical stories – yet some women were helped, some not. The distinction felt random.
Some of the most shameful incidents of SEA have involved peacekeepers deployed on UN missions. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has taken this on, training soldiers on rules of sexual conduct and putting preventative measures in place. But peacekeepers are just national soldiers on deployment abroad. So, if a soldier sleeps with an aid beneficiary while abroad, it is SEA, triggering the full humanitarian bells and whistles. If he performs that same act while stationed at home, it’s not SEA and is scarcely dealt with. By failing to address this issue from both ends, we cannot produce armed troops, both at home or abroad, who are truly clear about ethical sexual behaviour.
Too many labels
The humanitarian field loves classifications – nowhere more than in the gender violence world. We have normal “gender-based violence” – including domestic violence or rape – in both peacetime and emergencies.
During conflicts and disasters, the “gender-based violence in emergencies”, or GBViE, folk step in. Sexual violence perpetrated by military personnel in wartime might be labelled “conflict-related sexual violence”. Each category comes with dedicated funding and targeted programming. Yet each is limited in its scope. With programming silos come gaps – meaning cases of violence that fall between intervention cracks.
Critical issues are being sidestepped through the use of technical classifications.
Those of us who work on gender violence are there to ensure women’s protection – regardless of who is trying to hurt them. We need to stop this move towards gender violence classification and sub-classification – which is ultimately not a helpful way to address women’s protection. We need to move away from programming silos focussed on perpetrators and their acts, and instead focus on victims and their harm. Women who have been attacked should never be denied assistance because of the identity of their attacker.
There is no consensus on whether soldiers can perpetrate SEA. To me, anyone carrying out a humanitarian role, present in the humanitarian space, who has access to and power over humanitarian beneficiaries can perpetrate SEA.
Organisations must develop strategies to prevent sexual exploitation by all – not just by their own staff. Cases with perpetrators who don’t work for humanitarian organisations must also be investigated, reported, and followed up. A woman should never need to trade sex for food, be it with a humanitarian worker, soldier, or neighbour. Each of these situations – and the circumstances that make women desperate enough to engage in them – should be treated with the same levels of outrage, response, and intervention.
First Person offers fresh and personal perspectives on crises. Please send submissions to [email protected]