The House of Representatives is due to consider legislation on Wednesday aimed at strengthening measures Congress has already adopted to fight the sexual exploitation of women and children around the world.
In the weeks after the devastating tsunami waves struck countries around the Indian Ocean in December, concerns were raised about unscrupulous individuals trying to exploit the situation to engage in sexual exploitation and child trafficking. This was especially true in Indonesia, where thousands of children in the hard-hit province of Aceh in Sumatra were left without parents and family members, making them vulnerable to abuse.
The legislation before the House of Representatives, called the Humanitarian Assistance Code of Conduct Act, is aimed at associating Congress and overall U.S. assistance policies even more closely than they are already with promoting protection of women and children.
Supported by opposition Democrats and majority Republicans in the House, it would require organizations working in refugee, famine and disaster relief to adopt a code of conduct protecting aid recipients from sexual exploitation and abuse, or face loss of U.S. government funding.
"We can't lose sight of the unfortunate reality that at times such as those [the tsunami], there are increased opportunities for sexual predators and traffickers," said Congressman William Delahunt, a key Democratic supporter of the legislation. "For this reason, we need to be very clear that as part of our relief effort there ought to be a component that protects women and children."
The uniform code of conduct is modeled on United Nations task force guidelines. These provide for dismissal of humanitarian workers engaging in such conduct, prohibiting money, jobs or services being exchanged for sex, discouraging sexual relationships with recipients of assistance and requiring that humanitarian workers report colleagues they suspect of engaging in such activities.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay says the U.S. Congress has a moral obligation to ensure that children orphaned by the tsunami in South Asia are safe from possible exploitation:
"We just cannot sit by and let it happen anymore. Too many women and children have suffered too much for us to turn away from this kind of abuse at the hands of people we pay to help," said Mr. DeLay. "Humanitarian assistance and the protection of women and children from abuse are linked by common sense. They should be linked in the law as well. This bill will begin to do just that."
Both lawmakers referred to the ongoing investigation of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo. Mr. Delahunt points to the decision of the Moroccan government to file charges against some of its troops accused of bribing Congolese children to underscore the importance of efforts to bring more attention to the issue.
Supporters of the Humanitarian Assistance Code of Conduct Act say their bill has the support of a number of private and U.N. aid organizations.
If it is approved by both the House and Senate, the legislation would require a report from the president within six months on implementation of its provisions.
Sponsors of the bill plan to bring it up for consideration in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.