Page last updated at 12:13 GMT, Tuesday, 27 May 2008 13:13 UK

Abuse victims suffer in silence

By Adam Mynott
BBC News

Twelve-year-old Elizabeth - not her real name - was walking in fields with her brother, following an aunt who had gone ahead to work on the family's plot of land near the town of Man in north-western Ivory Coast, when they were approached by "les casques bleues", as UN peacekeepers are known.

'Elizabeth', who was raped by 10 UN peacekeepers in Ivory Coast. Picture courtesy of Save the Children
"Elizabeth" was raped by 10 UN peacekeepers in Ivory Coast

Her brother took a biscuit from one of the men; she refused.

As Elizabeth tried to run away, one of the soldiers seized hold of her. There were 10 of them.

I spoke to Elizabeth near her home. She said: "They grabbed me and threw me to the ground and they forced themselves on me... I tried to escape but there were 10 of them and I could do nothing... I was terrified.

"Then they just left me there bleeding..."

Elizabeth was raped by 10 peacekeepers and abandoned.

Her village elders say they tried to take the case to UN officials at the camp nearby. But Domade Jean-Baptiste, one of the village chiefs, said they were made to wait for ages and then sent away.

Elizabeth's brutal rape is one of an unknown number of sexual assaults carried out by peacekeepers and aid workers, the very people who are brought in to post-conflict areas around the world to protect the vulnerable.

They are suffering in silence
Heather Kerr
Save the Children UK

A report by Save the Children UK says such assaults are continuing and, despite an undertaking by the UN and other international bodies to operate a policy of zero tolerance, little appears to be done on the ground to stop the attacks taking place.

The 10 peacekeepers accused of the attack on Elizabeth have returned home.

Save the Children, a leading UK charity, has spent 12 months compiling its report from Ivory Coast, southern Sudan and Haiti.

It details cases where children as young as six years old have been preyed on by aid workers and peacekeepers who, in some cases, trade small quantities of food for sex, or rape and sodomise small children with near total impunity.

Save the Children says one of its most harrowing findings is that the abuse is taking place "in acute silence", because of an unwillingness of the authorities to investigate the reported assaults and because in many cases the victims are too frightened or too powerless to take action and report what has happened to them.

Elizabeth, now 13, has been unable to tell her parents about the attack for fear they would throw her out of the house.

She suffers daily pain, nearly a year after the attack, and has abandoned school.

UN peacekeepers in Sudan
The UN has peacekeepers stationed throughout the world

Heather Kerr, country director for Save the Children UK in Ivory Coast, said: "It's a minority of people who are carrying out the abuse but they are using their power to sexually exploit children, and children that don't have the voice to report about this.

"They are suffering in silence."

The United Nations in Ivory Coast has said it welcomes the report and will take note of its findings.

Jean Paul Proulx, the UN Chief Conduct and Discipline Officer, said: "When we have information we take action."

He said investigations often took six months or more to conclude, but they could only be pursued when information was brought forward.

The UN Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO) in New York says that when there is a huge peacekeeping operation around the world, it is not possible to guarantee that abuse does not take place.

Save the Children has urged that stronger measures be taken to prevent the abuse happening.

The charity says better systems need to be in place to allow children to report abuse when it happens, and it is calling for the creation of an international watchdog to translate international concern about child sexual abuse into action that pursues and prosecutes the perpetrators.

Peacekeepers 'abusing children'
27 May 08 |  Special Reports
UN to discuss child abuse claims
01 Dec 06 |  Americas

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