United Nations Rules addressing sexual exploitation and abuse as set out in a 2003 Secretary-General’s bulletin. (Source: UN Office of Internal Oversight Services: https://oios.un.org/page/download2/id/13, p. 7)
United Nations rules addressing sexual exploitation and abuse as set out in a 2003 Secretary General’s bulletin. (U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services: https://oios.un.org/page/download2/id/13, p.7)

The following is a guest post from political scientists Bernd Beber (NYU), Michael Gilligan (NYU), Jenny Guardado (University of Chicago) and Sabrina Karim (Emory University).


Yesterday, the United Nations’ Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) released a rather scathing report on enforcement and remedial assistance efforts for sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. peacekeepers. The report draws on research that we conducted in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, in the summer of 2012, which can be found here. Liberia has hosted the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) since the end of its civil war in 2003, which has brought about 12,000 uniformed U.N. personnel at any given time to the country, with about one-fifth of them stationed in Monrovia.

In 2003, the U.N.  banned its peacekeepers from engaging in transactional sex (the exchange of money or anything of value for sex). Despite this ban, our survey of 475 18- to 30-year-old women in greater Monrovia revealed that about half of them report having engaged in transactional sex, and within that group of women, over three-quarters report having done so with U.N. personnel. Over 90 percent of the women who have engaged in transactional sex report that they usually receive money in exchange. And underage girls are at particular risk: 58 percent of the women who report the age at which they engaged in their first sexual transaction say they were younger than 18.

We ensured that the survey, conducted in summer 2012, was administered to a representative sample of Monrovia’s population by geolocating all of the roughly 110,000 dwellings in greater Monrovia and then sending GPS-equipped enumerators (i.e., the people carrying out the survey) to a random sample of these coordinates. (This also allowed us to use coordinates and automatically collected time stamps to routinely confirm our staff members’ reports of where and when interviews took place.) We surveyed almost 1400 households and then collected more in-depth and sensitive information from 475 women aged 18-30, randomly chosen from those households. We took pains to guarantee the confidentiality of these women’s responses to sensitive questions by having them enter their answers in a pictographic iPod interface, unobserved by enumerators (similar to a method previously used, for example, in the self-administration of sensitive political questions in authoritarian Sudan).

Our survey results show that transactional sex in general and with U.N. personnel in particular is a ubiquitous life experience among young women in Monrovia: Our best estimate is that about 58,000 women ages 18-30 in 2012 had engaged in transactional sex with U.N. personnel at some point, orders of magnitude greater than the number of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) violations registered by the U.N. This is in line with existing qualitative accounts, but this is the first systematic quantitative evidence of endemic transactional sex of U.N. personnel with local women.

An important question is whether the U.N. deployment actually led to an expansion of the market for transactional sex. Did the arrival of UNMIL lead to an increase in the volume of transactions, or did U.N. personnel simply displace lower-paying non-U.N.  men from an otherwise stable transactional sex market? We estimate that the median Monrovian woman’s chance of reaching age 25 without engaging in transactional sex would be nearly 50 percent greater if there were no UNMIL troops, and that more than 12,000 women in Monrovia entered the transactional sex market who would not have done so without UNMIL. However, at this point, we only tentatively attribute these effects to the U.N. mission. Figure 1, which shows bars for the share of women ages 14 to 18 in a given year who engage in their first sexual transaction and a line for total UNMIL personnel, clearly indicates that larger shares of women at risk engaged in their first transactional sex once UNMIL deploys in 2003. But our statistical analysis, detailed in the paper, must account for the fact that Liberia’s second civil war also ended in 2003 as well as other contemporaneous developments, which leaves us with some but not definitive evidence that UNMIL caused the expansion of Monrovia’s transactional sex market.

UNMIL troop levels and share of women aged 14‐18 who engage in transactional sex for the first time (Data: Original survey; UN Peace Operations Year in Review / Figure: Beber, Gilligan, Guardado, and Karim)
UNMIL troop levels and share of women aged 14‐18 who engage in transactional sex for the first time (Data: Original survey; U.N. Peace Operations Year in Review/Figure: Beber, Gilligan, Guardado, and Karim)

While the most lurid peacekeeper abuses are frequently reported in the news (such as a recent example from the Central African Republic), our findings point to a much more widespread, systematic problem that, until the release of yesterday’s OIOS report, has been largely ignored. The activities we uncovered in Monrovia, and that are described in the OIOS report, could damage the legitimacy of U.N. missions, risk undermining the U.N.’s broader peace building goals of gender equality and economic development, and, according to the U.N.’s own policy, represent abuse by peacekeepers of the very people they are sworn to protect.

This is a very unfortunate state of affairs, not the least because modern U.N. peacekeeping is generally considered a success story in terms of the attainment of core security objectives: U.N. peacekeeping tends to prolong post-war peace, prevent conflict contagion and reduce battlefield fatalities and civilian casualties. Some commentators have called for direct U.N. monitoring and enforcement of its zero-tolerance policy instead of leaving these tasks to troop-contributing countries themselves, but we are doubtful that member states will permit meaningful monitoring of their soldiers by U.N. bureaucrats. Perhaps one solution could lie in recruiting more troops from countries where gender equality norms are already widely held by the population at large, since there is some evidence that missions that include a greater number of peacekeepers from countries with better records of gender equality are associated with a lower number of sexual exploitation and abuse allegations. But the failure of the U.N.’s zero-tolerance policy must be addressed, lest it undermine the truly remarkable achievements of U.N. peacekeeping.