NAIROBI, KENYA - Human Rights Watch is accusing some soldiers with the African Union Mission to Somalia [AMISOM] of abusing their power to rape and exploit women and girls on their bases in Mogadishu. The organization has documented 21 cases, but the group notes the number most likely is higher, as many women did not want to share their experiences.
New York-based Human Rights Watch published a report Monday titled "The Power These Men Have Over Us," detailing how some African Union troops have sexually exploited and abused women who had gone to their camps for aid and medical assistance.This includes trading food aid for sex on their bases in the capital.
Speaking to reporters in Nairobi, Laetitia Bader, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said the AU soldiers, relying on Somali intermediaries, have used underhanded tactics against their victims.
"Certain AMISOM soldiers from Ugandan and Burundian forces in Mogadishu, over the last year, have been abusing their power to sexually exploit, which is basically the use of power, the abuse of vulnerability for sexual favors, but have also sexually abused, raped women and girls on two of their main bases in Mogadishu," said Bader.
Human Rights Watch says the report is based on interviews with 21 women and girls, the youngest being 12.
The report says some of the women did not file police reports out of fear of reprisals from their families, attackers, authorities, and the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab.
Abuse of power
AU troops have been credited with pushing the Somali al-Shabab militants out of the capital and much of south and central Somalia, liberating thousands of Somalis from repression by the terrorist group.
Back at their main command bases in Mogadishu, however, some soldiers and commanders have been perpetrators of crimes rather than liberators.
Bader explained that medical assistance has been misused.
"One of the most shocking testimonies in this report was a woman who was actually told come back to the base to get your medication and certainly realized when she found herself in a room with an AMISOM solider, she certainly realized that she was expected to have sex with this soldier," she said.
Responding to the allegations in the HRW report, AU military spokesman Eloi Yao said AMISON should not be tainted by the misdeeds of a few. He promised a full investigation to hold to account those responsible for abuses against civilian women and girls.
"I am not condoning, I am not undermining those cases, but this report as it portrays all image of AMISOM," said Yao. "And then we will work in a close collaboration with the government, our partners, to make sure that such cases are dealt with correctly and people found guilty can be properly punished."
The United Nations says about 800 cases of sexual and gender-based violence were reported in Mogadishu alone last year. But rights groups say many cases of rape go unreported because women fear being stigmatized and targeted for reprisals.
Human Rights Watch is urging AU forces, the U.N. and Somali government to adopt stronger measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuses against the vulnerable women and girls.
The rights group also calls on officials to create a safe environment where women can come forward and report abuses in a conservative society where sexual issues are taboo.