No one to turn to

The under-reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers.

By Corinna Csáky, Save the Children

The report

In the No one to turn to (PDF) report we focus on ways to improve the international community’s response to the sexual exploitation and abuse of children by aid workers, peacekeepers and others acting on their behalf in emergencies.

Every instance of such abuse is a gross violation of children’s rights and a betrayal of the core principles of humanitarian action. This report draws particular attention to the problem of the under-reporting of such abuse and addresses a range of related issues. It is not a detailed technical document, but aims to bring new evidence into discussions among policy-makers, politicians and those grappling at the local level with the obstacles to effective action.

The research suggests that significant levels of abuse of boys and girls continue in emergencies, with much of it going unreported. Victims include orphans, children separated from their parents and families, and children in families dependent on humanitarian assistance. The existence of this problem has been widely known since 2002 and various positive steps have begun to be taken to eliminate it.

A high level conference in New York in December 2006, attended by the UN Secretary General, reaffirmed the commitment of UN agencies and other international actors to vigorous action. These include the development of codes of conduct, better inter-agency cooperation, new mechanisms to encourage the reporting of abuse and a proactive response, and the preparation of training, information and guidance material.

Collectively these measures represent a serious attempt to respond to an issue that only recently became visible. Crucially, however, many of these measures are dependent on the willingness and ability of children and their carers to report the abuse they experience. If this is not assured, then the system as a whole will remain fundamentally flawed. Evidence from three countries suggests that much more needs to be done by international actors to encourage and support reporting by children and adults so that local communities have confidence in the new system.

Breaking the silence surrounding this problem is an essential step towards its elimination. Our research suggests that children and their families are not speaking out because of a mix of stigma, fear, ignorance and powerlessness. In addition, it appears that at the grassroots level international agencies are not yet perceived as responding effectively to allegations – with the consequence that victims and others cannot see the point of reporting abuse. Together, these two factors are a major impediment to stamping out this problem.

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