Boys will be…honourable men

By: Raluca Murg

Raluca is a postgraduate exchange student in the War Studies Department at KCL. Her home university is SciencesPo Paris where she studies International Security. Her main interests are European and Russian politics, non-proliferation of WMDs and the prevention of gender based violence in conflict and post-conflict areas.

Let me begin by saying that in no way is this article trying to delegitimize the actions of the UN. Rather its purpose is to tackle (among the realm of scenarios in which women are being sexually harassed and generally oppressed) the too often forgotten problem of sexual abuse within peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and the sad reality of peacekeeping economies transforming into sex tourism economies.

In one of his essays written together with international relations scholar Michael Doyle, Professor Nicholas Sambanis reminded us that UN peace missions have a positive effect in ensuring peace in the aftermath of a civil war. He also suggested in a different paper that a successful peace building process requires a self-sustaining, participatory peace based on institution building through technical assistance offered by the UN. Moreover, economic growth is acknowledged as a critical determinant of peace which would further contribute to the process of democratization and the development of the state per se.[1] But do UN missions really help in the unfolding of such scenarios?

The literature recognises many unintended consequences of PKOs such as high levels of corruption within the host states, trafficking of both persons and goods, distortions of the local economies (which thus hinders the long-term goal of a functioning economy), and last but not least an increase in the spread of HIV/ AIDS. However, of all these disturbing issues, it was the brutality of sexual violence against women that left me with the deepest sense of despair and disillusionment. The reason behind this is twofold: first, from a ‘technical’ point of view, sexual abuses of women and children are leading to the creation of a peacekeeping economy which is dauntingly similar to a sex tourism economy, as suggested by the FAFO Foundation’s Kathleen M Jennings [2]. This is a clear impediment to the creation of a self-sustaining environment for the development of the host country. Second, as a woman and an individual who can empathize, I cannot help asking what will happen to the women who fall victim to sexual exploitation? What does their future look like? How can a healthy society develop if women are being forced to become repressed single mothers? To put it in the words of Michelle Obama, “the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls”. And I am not one to be easily impressed by the rhetoric power of a public speech. This phrase however, is so accurate that it cannot be overlooked. Furthermore, it should also serve to remind us of the atrocities women and girls in war must face and how little attention is being given to this subject.

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Indeed, the list of questions can easily go on: what about the future of the children who are being abused and forced to grow up (way ahead of their time…) knowing that they must sell their bodies in order to receive a small portion of their food ratio? And what kind of an emotional and social impact will this have on the future generations of the host countries?

Now, imagine you are a woman living as a refugee in a war torn area and you do not get out of the tent after 6pm because it is just too dangerous. Imagine being scared to use the toilet. Or, imagine being afraid to go to the water fountain for fresh water because you might meet men/soldiers on your way there. Then imagine you doing it anyway because you have no choice. The soldiers cross your path and you wake up hours later tied to the ground, heavily beaten and sexually abused with no recollection of everything that happened to you because you lost consciousness in the beating process. This is what a testimony from a Congolese woman sounds like. In addition to this, try to imagine that you have to sell sex to receive food from the UN soldiers. What kind of aspirations can these women have? Constantly under terror but with no proper shelter and no one to offer help, this is the heart-breaking reality that many women need to face on a daily basis.

It is no novelty that women have been victims of sexual abuse across history in different conflict situations. For example, during WWII, when Japanese soldiers sexually enslaved and trafficked thousands of “comfort women” across Asia, or the hundreds of thousands of Bengali women being raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 war.

In peacekeeping missions, stories of UN staff violating their code of conduct and oppressing the local population surfaced in the 1990s Cambodia when blue helmets were accused of getting involved in SEAs (sexual exploitation and abuse). The Dyncorp scandal in Bosnia and Herzegovina where soldiers were involved in forced prostitution and human trafficking is yet another example of the sexual exploitation committed by the UN personnel (or private US military contractors in this specific case). And these are just a few examples from the scandalously high number of such sad stories.

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What this article lays emphasis on, is the argument made by researcher Kathleen M Jennings that peacekeeping economies are likely to become sex tourism economies. While sex tourism is defined as travelling with the aim of engaging in commercial sex, peacekeeping economies are defined as the industries and services which appear along with the presence of a peace keeping mission. In an attempt to illustrate the scenario in which a peacekeeping economy becomes a sex tourism economy, Jennings is using concrete examples of countries in which peacekeeping economies involve a lot of sex selling and sex trafficking. Moreover, she observes the fact that both sex tourism and peacekeeping economies rely on the exploitation of girls’ and women’s sexual labour. Indeed, peace-keeping economies are mostly centred on urban areas where most of the international personnel are and most of the unskilled service sector consists of predominantly “women’s work”. Hence, we can observe the highly gendered organization of peacekeeping economies with men being in positions of ownership and women participating in the lower orders of the industries. The sexual availability of the locals comes together with the existence of foreign military power. We must not downplay the gravity of these practices the way the former UN top official in Cambodia, Yasushi Akashi, did and accept that “Boys will be boys”. This kind of attitude only allows for such scenarios to proliferate and further destabilize the host country, not to mention turning a blind eye to the victims of abuse.

A second analogy between peacekeeping economies and sex tourism takes into consideration the lack of a unique paradigm for the selling of sex. For example, in the Liberian case of peace keeping economy, the women engaged in selling sex are categorized in three panels: prostitutes (who have a more ‘sophisticated’ clientele), hustlers (or survival prostitutes, selling sex to survive) and homegirls (or girls looking for a “sugar daddy”). Nevertheless, according to a report published in 2001 by Save the Children UK [3], the sexual exploitation of children by UN soldiers in several African countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) meant that girls and sometimes boys under the age of 18 were being blackmailed and forced to barter their sex services for vital items such as medicine, food and other humanitarian commodities and services. Here, they were all ‘hustlers’, fighting for their lives. What the report sheds light on is the fact that most of the victims were girls between the ages of 13 and 18 and the most vulnerable children were the ones who lacked the protection of their parents, namely, orphans or children who only had one parent. As an outcome of such abuses, adolescent girls become young mothers with no real chance of getting a proper education, thus turning into victims of perpetual exclusion from the society.

A peacekeeping economy becoming a sex tourism economy is not a definite. However, it is a possible scenario for a country in which, inter alia, the peacekeepers have left and gendered relations and roles have been negatively affected by the expansion of sex industry related to military conflict. For this reason, it is crucial to underline time and time again that the ideological legitimacy of the United Nations rests on a set of peaceful practices based on cultural inversions (the weak are empowered, the hungry fed etc.). Furthermore, this makes it obvious why the UN should stress on the unique position of its peacekeepers and the importance of clean behaviour.

With the recent election of a new Secretary General, we once again build our hopes for a correct and comprehensive approach of peace missions and the behaviour of the peacekeepers with no impeachment of the IHL or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, the UN did try to combat the pejorative actions of its soldiers since the 1990s through a set of actions such as writing a Code of Conduct in 1998 which specifically addressed and regulated the soldiers’ sexual activities, passing Resolution 1325 in 2000 and its successor resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, and publishing annual reports since 2003 on the prevention of sexual exploitations and abuses. However, the problem is that currently some states do not even have the commitment or resources to prosecute sexual crimes against women. Besides, more often than not, women prefer to remain silent about the abuses they go through for fear of losing basic goods for their everyday survival.

The reconfiguration of troops according to the country in which they are being sent, more women as blue helmets (as usually the sex perpetrators are men) or UN officials, no fear of ‘naming and shaming’, clear and respected punishments for the soldiers who are impeaching the law are all potential solutions to the misbehaviour of the blue helmets and their implementation is vital for the safety of women and children in war torn areas. It is high time we no longer accept the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude and demand a lot better. In this way, respect for local women would be perpetuated and the harsh reality of war correctly approached, thus diminishing the chances for a regressive form of post-peacekeeping economy to be born.


[1] Nicholas Sambanis (2008) “Short- and Long-Term Effects Of United Nations Peace Operations” The World Bank Economic Review, 22 (1): 9–32

[2] Jennings, Kathleen, M. (2012) “Unintended Consequences Of Intimacy: Political Economies Of Peacekeeping And Sex Tourism” , International Peacekeeping, 17(2):229- 243

[3]https://Www.Savethechildren.Org.Uk/Sites/Default/Files/Docs/Sexual_Violence_And_Exploitation_1.Pdf

Image 1: Jan Dago, http://www.alexiafoundation.org/stories/civil-war-in-sierra-leone

Image 2&3:  Brent Stirton, http://www.brentstirton.com/liberia-sierra-leone-20023/x26lns8dqny1zzvvtohaa4y6ck89n2

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