AU soldiers sexually abuse vulnerable women in Somalia, says HRW

Women and children queue to enter a free medical clinic run by Ugandan and Burundian personnel of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Baidoa. (Credit: UN Photo/Abdi Dakan)

When Qamar R’s mother fell sick, she traveled to the African Union base to get medicine. Qamar and her family were living in the Somali capital city of Mogadishu after being displaced from their home. An interpreter told Qamar to follow two Burundian soldiers to collect the medicine. They led her to what she thought was a building holding the medicine her mother needed. In the remote area, she was attacked by one of the men.

“First he ripped off my hijab and then he attacked me,” she said.

The soldier proceeded to rape the fifteen year-old girl while the other paced around. After the soldier was done Qamar left and the second soldier gave her $10 (US). Members of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have sexually exploited women and girls at their two bases in Mogadishu. Women, like Qamar, have been coerced into sexual acts in exchange for money or goods meant for humanitarian aid. Others have reporting that they were raped while trying to gather water or seek medical attention, finds a damning report from Human Rights Watch.

At least 21 women were sexually assaulted by AMISOM troops from Ugandan and Burundi since 2013. The women all came from south-central Somalia, where continued fighting with the Islamist terrorist organization al Shabaab and harsh living conditions forced them and their families to flee. They went to Mogadishu and turned to African Union soldiers for safety to only experience more violence.

“I was scared he would come back and rape me again or kill me. I want the government to recognize the power these men have over us and for them to protect us from them,” said Farha A, a woman raped by an AMISOM soldier, in the report.

The youngest victim is a 12 year-old girl. Of the 24 cases documented by Human Rights Watch, five involve girls under the age of eighteen. There is evidence that some justice may be taking place. The Ugandan military court has a pending case for a soldier raping a minor. That may or may not stem from the incident involve the 12 year-old, but it is not certain. What is known is that there is little accountability for the soldiers at the two bases.

Only two of the women interviewed said they filed a complaint with authorities. They fear the stigma associated with making a complaint and the possibility of little action being taken by authorities. Some even said that they could not risk losing the income that they make from committing such acts with the soldiers.

“The AU military and political leadership needs to do more to prevent, identify, and punish sexual abuse by their troops,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a release. “As another food crisis looms in Mogadishu’s displacement camps, women and girls are once again desperate for food and medicine. They should not have to sell their bodies for their families to survive.”

The report recommends reforms at the country level of the contributing countries and within AMISOM itself. A draft policy, called Policy on prevention and response to sexual exploitation and abuse, exists to address this very problem. The report encourages for it to be made stronger and adopted immediately. Countries, like Uganda and Burundi, need to hold soldiers accountable immediately for their crimes and do more to ensure that people with a history of abuse and crimes are not a part of the AMISOM force. The donors to the mission, such as the US and UK, should also contribute by providing more oversight.

“Somalia has many intractable problems, but the Somali and AU leadership could end sexual exploitation and abuse by pressing troop-sending countries to hold abusers responsible,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments supporting AMISOM should work with the AU to end sexual abuse and exploitation of Somali women and girls by their troops, take action against forces contributing to it, and do what they can to prevent further sexual exploitation and abuse of Somali women.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.