A study by the Britian-based aid group, Save the Children, says humanitarian workers and peacekeepers in Liberia are sexually exploiting girls as young as eight. The United Nations says it has been addressing the issue.
The report, published Monday, says young girls in refugee camps are routinely being sexually exploited by humanitarian workers, peacekeepers and local businessmen.
The study found that girls are exchanging sex for basic necessities, such as food and education. Save the Children says many 12-year-olds are believed to have regular sexual relations with men, but even some as young as eight have been involved.
A Liberian girl interviewed by VOA confirmed this practice takes place, saying it is the only way she can pay school fees.
Liberia is in the process of rebuilding after its 14-year civil war ended in 2003. Many children lost their parents in the war and have to fend for themselves, with unemployment at around 80 percent.
In 2002, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations committed themselves to codes of conduct, which would ensure that staff was more carefully monitored regarding such malpractices. Save the Children says these codes are not being enforced, and the issue needs to be made a priority by top management.
Martin Kirk, political advisor for Save the Children, says the perpetrators are supposed to be protecting the children.
"That is one of the saddest aspects of this," he said. "These men who are in positions of power over children's lives are the very ones, who are turning 'round and abusing them. We think this is an absolute disgrace, and needs to become a priority for all the international organizations and for the U.N. But it is also a problem with local people, as well, with local businessmen and local teachers."
Kirk says these practices are now so commonplace that the children's parents are accepting them as a necessary means of survival.
"We are starting to see trends whereby families are accepting the fact that their young girls are having to rely on selling their bodies in return for such basic things that you and I take for granted, like food, and even from their teachers for an education," he explained. "It does seem to be normalizing itself in society, which makes it a very difficult thing to tackle."
A U.N. spokesperson in New York said the U.N. takes the issue very seriously, and has taken many measures in the last few years to clamp down on such behavior.
The official also said he did not feel the report reflected the current state of affairs. He said some of the details outlined in the report had been dealt with by the U.N.
Last year, the United Nations introduced a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation, in the wake of recurring scandals involving sexual abuse by U.N. staff, particularly in West and Central Africa.
Research for the study was carried out in four locations, villages and camps for internally displaced people. Many camp-dwellers, especially around the Monrovia area, are returning to their villages in the country. Kirk says the practice of using sex to acquire basic necessities is finding its way back to the villages with many of the girls.
Last September, Save the Children was embroiled in a scandal in Liberia, when it released a similar report, claiming between 60 and 80 percent of Monrovia's schoolgirls sold sex to pay school fees. The transitional Liberian government questioned the report's credibility, demanding its withdrawal, and threatened to expel the group from Liberia.
Before her election late last year, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, focused during her campaign on women's issues, and promised to strengthen the legal system to prosecute anyone who commits rape. She has since launched a comprehensive rape awareness campaign.