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Congo's War-Induced Poverty Fuels Sex Trade with UN Troops

Anxious to quell international outrage amid a widening sex scandal involving dozens of soldiers and officials for the U.N. mission in Congo, the United Nations now forbids its peacekeepers from having sexual contact with the people they are to protect. But some Congolese women and girls who depend on U.N. soldiers for their income are not happy with the new policy.

Francine is with her friend Yvette near the Okapi bar, a popular nightclub pulsating with Lingala music where the locals, including Congolese soldiers, often mingle with women and girls from the town of Bunia, the capital of Congo's northeast Ituri Province.

Soldiers from the U.N. mission in Congo, known as MONUC, used to come to this bar, but that was before charges surfaced that dozens of peacekeepers were having sex with underage Congolese girls, some as young as 12 years old. Some peacekeepers are accused of raping Congolese women and girls, allegations the U.N. is investigating.

Some of the girls, driven to sex work by the extreme poverty induced by five years of war and numerous post-war flare-ups, were given food or money in exchange for sex. One dollar is so standard a rate for sex in this region that those who allegedly have sex with U.N. soldiers are known as "one-dollar girls."

Both Francine, who is 16-years old, and Yvette, who is 14, have had sex with MONUC soldiers in exchange for money or food. "She did not know what would happen to her. When they got her there, the girl had already negotiated with the soldiers to bring them some girls. So, in such a way, she was found in that camp and she could not do anything. After performing sex the Moroccan soldiers only gave milk," said a translator describing Yvette's experience.

The girls said their initiation into sex came suddenly and violently. Last year, Francine was gang-raped by six men from a rival ethnic militia. At 10, Yvette was raped by a militia soldier during a raid on her village. Everything her family owned was looted.

Rape is a weapon of war in Congo's ongoing conflict, in which tens of thousands of women and children have been victims. Despite a peace deal signed two-years ago by Congo's warring militias, the violence has escalated in the northeastern Ituri Province and with it sexual violence, say health workers.

Doctors Without Borders, which operates several clinics in the region, says about 2,500 rape victims, three-quarters of them gang-raped by militia groups have been treated in Bunia in the past 20 months. In Bunia, even with the presence of hundreds of U.N. troops, human-rights groups say at least 10 women are raped every day.

The pervasive sexual violence and exploitation has been accompanied by a huge increase in the number of women and girls willing to trade sex for money, food or protection. The line between rape and negotiated sex is blurred, as many women are pressured to engage in what is being called "survival sex" to feed themselves and their families.

And as Bunia's district commissioner Petronila Vaweka explains, the women and girls usually target MONUC soldiers, about 10,000 of whom began arriving in Congo five years ago from Morocco, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Nepal, and Bangladesh to help end the country's war. Most often, the women and girls approach them under the pretext of selling bananas or cassava patties.

"We know there were some cases of rape, but more than there were even some cases of prostitution. This prostitution can be justified by the war. Even some women who are living in their household are obliged to go make prostitution with the soldiers because only soldiers after war have money. So they go to get money to feed their families," she said.

Ms. Vaweka sees that some of the women and girls have sunk deeper into poverty by their association with the MONUC soldiers, who because they have immunity from prosecution by Congolese authorities are not required to pay child support for their children by Congolese women.

"The MONUC members cannot be arrested here in Congo. There are some of them who left children here," she said. "So the question is now, 'Who is going to pay for those children?'."

Many Congolese tolerate the sex trade with the U.N. soldiers, saying the U.N. troops pay. The militias, they say, take without paying. It is a twisted logic borne of too many years of war.

The United Nations has implemented non-fraternization rules, forbidding U.N. soldiers from having sex with Congolese women.

But, according to a U.N. report released in November, there has been "zero compliance" with the new policy. Obviously, some peacekeepers have not gotten the message. But it is a policy with which the United States Congress has called for strict enforcement. MONUC spokesman Kemal Saiki;

"We are looking at all the areas of how we can address the problem - not only internally, but also within the context of a war situation, abject poverty and people who come in and have some type of leverage. It is a bad recipe if you do not have a clear, unambiguous policy and a systematic awareness and education approach because also this is needed," said MONUC spokesman Kemal Saiki.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is investigating 71 allegations of sexual abuse against military personnel, and one case involving a U.N. civilian who allegedly videotaped sex acts with Congolese children. The allegations are undermining an already difficult mission, which is widely criticized by the Congolese for its inaction as violence in the region escalates.