Friday, April 22, 2011

Stopping "Survival Sex" in Liberia

With news cycles focused on the forced migration impacts of the conflicts in Libya and Tunisia, the refugee crisis building in the Ivory Coast has received less media attention. As of Tuesday, UNHCR reports over 150,000 Ivorian refugees have been registered in Liberia. Laurent Gbagbo has been deposed, but militia loyal to him still roam the streets of Abidjan, with heavy fighting taking place in several neighborhoods. The western Ivory Coast, which has been very hard hit by the violence, remains unstable in the wake of recent and brutal attacks. As the violence subsides, UN officials expect that many more people will flee Abidjan for Liberia. (credit for 2011 Reuters for photo of Ivorian refugees in Liberia)
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch issued a report raising dire concerns about the incidence of sexual abuse of female Ivorian refugees in Liberia. The women with whom they spoke said that many had been forced to trade sex for food, shelter, or money so that they and their children could survive. The report quotes a 25-year old woman who had been gang-raped by three men before she left the Ivory Coast:
I have five children to look after and the food here makes them ill. I have to make money for other food. During sex with men in Toe Town, they ask me to do things I don't want to do and say they won't pay me if I don't agree. I need the money so I have no choice and I do what they say.
The vulnerability of these impoverished refugee women combined with the breakdown of social mores in Liberia during its 14 years of civil war have set the stage for this sexual exploitation. Though both prostitution and sex with minors are illegal under Liberian law, the police forces are "undisciplined, poorly managed, and ill-equipped." It falls instead on UNHCR to ensure the safety of these women who have fled violence in their home country. This is a tall order, and one that will require significant support from an international donor base whose attention is focused elsewhere.

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