DRC: Congo's Desperate 'One-Dollar U.N. Girls'

Source: Washington Post
She's known in the community as a "one-dollar U.N. girl." At night, she sleeps on the cracked pavement outside a storefront. In the mornings, she sashays through the dusty streets, clutching a frayed parasol against the blinding sun.

Yvette and her friends are also called kidogo usharatis, Swahili for small prostitutes. They loiter outside the camps of U.N. peacekeepers, hoping to sell their bodies for a mug of milk, a cold soda or -- best of all -- a single dollar.

"I'm sad about it. But I needed the dollars. I can't go farm because of the militias. Who will feed me?" asked Yvette. At 14, she has a round face with wide eyes beneath a cap of neatly shorn hair, and her hands rest on her hips in an older girl's pose.

When Yvette was 10, a militiaman raped her, leaving her without clothes, she recalled. She cried a lot, wrapped her body in rags and then got up. She sought counseling at a women's organization, where she was told that she had done nothing wrong but that the theft of her virginity made her worthless as a bride. She should understand, the counselors said, that now no man would marry her.

"From time to time, I still do it. I am obligated," Yvette said. She and the other teenage girls interviewed for this article agreed to be identified provided only their first names were used. "Sometimes it happens in U.N. cars, other times at the camp. But at least they paid us. I was worthless anyhow. My honor was lost."

Yvette's story is not uncommon. The United Nations is investigating 150 instances in which 50 peacekeeping troops or civilians in the Congo mission are suspected of having sexually abused or exploited women and girls, some as young as 12.

Often, the victims were vulnerable, poverty-stricken girls engaged in what Congolese call "obligation" or "survival" sex. In this war-shattered society, aid workers and counselors said, a breakdown of cultural norms, combined with extreme poverty, has driven hundreds of kidogo usharatis to the soldiers' doorsteps.

Similar charges have been made about U.N. missions in Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as Kosovo and Bosnia in Europe.

The United Nations is also investigating reports of rape or sexual assault in Congo, including one case in which a French logistics employee was found with hundreds of videotapes that showed him torturing and sexually abusing naked girls. Last week, U.N. officials announced they had fired one employee and suspended six others from among 17 civilian staff members being investigated in the Congo abuses.

Secretary General Kofi Annan on Sunday unveiled new rules for the United Nations that, in part, address the reports of sexual misconduct by its personnel.

But the problem of sex for money is more widespread, officials and health experts said. The U.N. scandal, they added, highlights a far larger problem in lawless societies such as Congo where young girls, some the victims of previous sexual attacks by militia fighters, sell their bodies for cash or food.

In Congo, moreover, the widespread incidence of sexual violence by roving militias during the civil war that raged from 1997 to 2003 has created a crisis in many families where long-standing marriage and sexual customs are revered.

In much of rural Africa, as in many other traditional societies, a girl's virginity has high monetary value. If a prospective bride is proved not to be a virgin, she cannot fetch a traditional bride price. Even if virginity has been lost through rape, the price can no longer be demanded by her family and the girl is considered unworthy of marriage.

According to health experts, the sale of sexual services by girls and women who may have lost their chance for a marriage payment has become common across the region.

"There are cases of rape by the U.N. But much more than that, there are many cases where girls negotiated obligation sex. In war, it is only soldiers who have money," said Petronila Vaweka, the district administrator of Ituri. "These girls have absolutely no way to make a living. This is their reality, and in some cases, the parents even push it."

Vaweka said she has considered starting a U.N. victims' association for young girls left with children, and in some cases venereal diseases or HIV/AIDS. U.N. officials expressed concern that poor, desperate girls would make up stories to claim cash. But so far, few have come forward at all because of the deep scorn involved.

"We can try the compensation idea," Vaweka said. "But I want to know, can you have compensation for a wound in the heart?"

'So Much Abject Poverty'

Five years ago, more than 10,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops came to Congo to help end a six-nation war that had left over 3 million people dead. Contingents from Morocco, South Africa, India, Nepal and Bangladesh erected camps that looked quite posh to the Congolese. They had shiny trailers and roomy tents, satellite dishes, and kitchens and bathrooms with electricity and running water -- amenities rarely seen in the impoverished bush.

To Congolese girls living in squalid camps or squatting in abandoned buildings, the peacekeepers were wealthy men they wanted to know.

Even though the war officially ended in 2003, life in Congo remains violent and precarious, especially in the volatile Ituri region where seven militia groups are still fighting. In Bunia, the regional capital, people grab at any opportunity to survive. Orphaned boys sleep in filthy gutters. A medical student peddles dried meat to pay his school fees. Girls and women beg foreign workers to let them perform any chore -- washing laundry, polishing shoes, hauling water or providing sex -- for a few coins.

"Abuse always stems from an unbalanced power relationship. There is so much abject poverty here, and people come in with economic leverage. That's a recipe for this to happen if we don't have a specific policy," said Kemal Saiki, a spokesman for the U.N. mission, who was visiting Bunia from his base in the capital, Kinshasa.

But even after the United Nations established a curfew for its troops and a strict policy of non-fraternization with the local population, the girls have continued to linger outside the U.N. camps.

Chantal, 17, stood sullenly outside a Moroccan troop camp one recent evening, clutching a tray of bananas. She was hawking the fruit -- and her body -- to soldiers perched inside a lookout post. Her high heels sank into the dusty street; her skirt clung to her thin legs.

"To us they are the town's best employer," she said with a shrug. "I know everyone is saying it's bad. But why don't they come and give us jobs? Tell me, who will feed me?"

Earlier in the day, Moroccan soldiers inside the camp said any illicit behavior that might have taken place is now over. Moroccan officials recently fired two unit commanders and said they sent six soldiers home to be prosecuted after finding allegations against them to be credible.

There also have been tensions between the small group of soldiers who buy sex and the majority who don't, the peacekeepers said.

"As a human being, I feel there is too much poverty here, and maybe some people took advantage of that," said Lt. Charaf Arsalane, 23. "But I feel really affected by this. We are out here working hard, and a few people ruin the reputations of all. It has to stop completely, and that means turning away from some of the girls even if it's an innocent interaction."

Even so, Chantal and Yvette said that if they ran out of food, they would head back to the U.N. camps.
Most people in rural Congo are farmers, but they can no longer tend their fields because militiamen roam the countryside. As a result, food shortages are rampant. A study by the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders found that clean water and food rations from international aid agencies were insufficient to meet the people's needs.

But Congo's suffering, the group said, has fallen low on the world's priority list. Last year, according to the International Rescue Committee, $188 million was spent on humanitarian aid in Congo. That amounted to just over $3 per person, compared to $89 per person in Sudan and $138 per person in Iraq the previous year.

"The ugly fact is, many girls engaged in obligation sex when the war got really bad in 2003, and it was mainly with U.N. soldiers because they have the money," said Antoine Tambwe, a Congolese pediatrician at the International Red Cross hospital here.

Many girls told Tambwe they were "really sorry they did it, some even in U.N. cars, but they were too hungry," he said. "Sometimes they said many peacekeepers would have sex with one girl in the same night, and she would get one dollar from each. It's not rape, but it's close, because it's exploitation of children. This is really sad, but this is the truth."

'No Other Choice'

On a recent night, Yvette and her friend Francine, 16, sat side by side, giggling, on the veranda of an abandoned business. Swinging their legs back and forth and singing a Congolese song, they seemed like young girls anywhere.

But once they stopped singing, Francine seemed troubled.

She looks much younger than her age and speaks in a shy voice. When she sleeps, she said, she has a recurring nightmare. In the dream, she has been raped and finds herself in a graveyard where her uncle is buried.

"I am just standing there," Francine said. "I don't know why."

Francine's father died in the war, and she had to leave school after the fourth grade. After that her uncle protected her. One day in 2003, she went into the fields to collect food and was raped by a militiaman. Like Yvette, she was told she had been spoiled for marriage, but her uncle still treated her kindly.

Then the uncle was killed in an attack, and the nightmares started. Many families fled the region; Francine lost her mother in the confusion. After a time she came to Bunia because she heard that U.N. troops were guarding the town and that it was safe. At first she collected cassava roots and tried to sell them, but she made very little money.

Meanwhile she met and became friends with Yvette, whose mother was sick with typhoid and had run out of food. Yvette, she said, told her about another way to earn money. After that, she began having sex with peacekeepers.

"There was no other choice," Francine said, as Yvette laughed uncomfortably beside her.

One recent evening, Francine recounted, a deal was negotiated and she went into the Moroccan camp. There, she said, she had sex with one man, but the situation got out of control. Five more lined up and began to take her by force, she said.

"I feel bad about what I did. I don't want to go through that again," Francine said quietly.

After the incident, Yvette and Francine went to an aid group that works with the victims of sexual violence, but they did not reveal the full story.

"I was afraid of trouble, so I just told them about the rapes by militias. We never said anything about the U.N.," Yvette said.

The counseling helped a little. The girls liked being with others, and they learned a song that they found soothing to sing. In it, a boy asks for his inheritance and receives it. He goes abroad, has an affair with a girl and spends all the money. Then he returns home to face his father.

"Please, father," Francine and Yvette sang sweetly into the hot night air. "Please forgive me. I have undergone poverty, and I have lost my worth. Please accept me back."

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