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

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 21, 2005

BUNIA, Congo -- 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.

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