“My friends and I were walking by the National Palace one evening when we encountered a couple of humanitarian men. The men called us over and showed us their penises. They offered us 100 Haitian gourdes (US$2.80) and some chocolate if we would suck them. I said no, but some of the girls did it and got the money.” This was the bleak statement of a 15-years-old Haitian girl in a report by Save the Children.

Her words echo a myriad of child abuse stories committed by aid workers in crisis-stricken countries around the world. The report, which was carried out almost a decade ago, detailed the sexual exploitation of boys and girls by those who were sent to safeguarding their well-being – an irony that reeks of the ultimate betrayal.

One of the reasons that these sexual assaults go unreported is due to the fear of losing much-needed resources in desperately impoverished regions. Many children have been forced to trade sex for food and other necessities that they need to sustain their survival. A teenage girl in Côte d’Ivoire spoke about a girl entrapped by a man whom she relied on to get food. In Southern Sudan, a teenage boy divulged that even though people may be aware that it happens, they are worried that if they were to report the matter, the agencies will stop providing the care that they so heavily relied on.

Although the report failed to disclose the names of those companies that were culpable, it did confirm that it was prevalent in 23 humanitarian, peacekeeping and security organisations. This included civil humanitarian agencies such as those delivering food and nutritional assistance, care, education and health services, reconstruction, shelter, training, and livelihood support, as well as military actors providing peace and security services.

Andrew MacLeod, co-founder and director of Hear Their Cries – an organisation established to stop the abuse of this nature happening, said: “Save the Children have done little to prevent abuse by their own staff and contractors. So while their report was good to highlight the issue, one has to wonder if they too have gone silent on the issue because they have too much to hide themselves.”

Since the publishing of the report almost ten years ago, it was revealed last year that this systematic abuse of vulnerable children had continued. Former Oxfam head, Dame Barbara Stocking, confessed that she “knew for years” that sexual violations had been occurring within Oxfam, which included the hiring of prostitutes – some of whom were underage. Instead of being reprimanded in the appropriate way, the perpetrators flitted freely from one aid job to another.

Oxfam is not the only wrongdoer when it comes to failing these children; in the humanitarian world it a well-known problem. The UK’s former National Criminal Intelligence Service compared paedophiles employed in the aid world to the sex tourism industry. “This problem is out of control and much larger in scale than the abuse of the Catholic Church,” MacLeod explained. “For those who doubt that, consider this: there are more aid workers than Catholic Priests, in more countries than the Catholic church with better access to children and controlling food, water, and shelter. Some of the saddest stories are those of children who were abused and then fell pregnant. The children born of the abuse in many cases have the rights to the nationality of their father – but they do not know who the father is. So this absence is the second abuse.”

A study by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) discovered that fewer people have been donating to charities in recent times. Figures have continued to fall over the past three years with only 48 per cent still believing that charities are trustworthy. “There needs to be a better PDP plan of action – prevention, detection, and prosecution. All NGO’s should report any child abuse immediately to prosecuting authorities. Child abuse will only stop when we have prosecutions,” MacLeod, who has been the recipient of numerous humanitarian awards, advised. “International NGO’s need to remember that many countries make it an offence to have sex with a child under the age of 16 anywhere in the world. So a staff member should be reported to their home police as well as the police where the event took place.”

“Furthermore, the vast majority of victims never report these crimes. So NGOs must fund a report into the causes and cures for the massive under-reporting of abuse, and not wait for victims to come forward. They should develop policies to actively seek out victims and provide adequate compensation to the victims directly – not just through a central fund. “A DNA database of aid workers should also be created to hold aid workers to account and the implementation of independent whistle-blower structures will also be helpful.”

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