When a Somali interpreter from the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) approached Idil in July 2013 asking her to “befriend” a Ugandan soldier in exchange for money, she was struggling to survive.
Idil (not her real name) had fled to the capital, Mogadishu, during the 2011 famine and was stuck in a camp for displaced people with little food. The interpreter took her to the main Amisom base.
“He told me that I should do as the soldier said,” she told us. “At first I was scared. He was old enough to be my father. After having sex, he paid me $20.” Idil had sex for money with the soldier for a month before he returned to Uganda.
The African Union deployed soldiers to Mogadishu in 2007 to restore stability at the height of renewed fighting. Those soldiers have been generally credited with pushing the Islamist insurgent group al Shabaab out of several towns across south-central Somalia, and protecting the country’s weak central government. Yet, some Amisom soldiers have also taken advantage of the country’s most vulnerable women and girls.
Idil was one of 21 women Human Rights Watch interviewed who told us they had been sexually exploited or abused by the African Union’s Ugandan or Burundian troops.
The AU Commission code of conduct, with which Amisom troops must comply, not only prohibits sexual abuse such as rape, but also sexual exploitation — taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability, of differential power, or of trust, for sexual purposes.
Amisom and the AU leadership have often brushed off such complaints as “isolated cases” or rejected allegations as they did last week. But this is despite mounting evidence that warrants investigations.
Last year, the UN Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported that accusations “continue to emerge.”
The women we spoke to knew of many others in the same situation — Idil said she met four other women regularly having sex with soldiers for money during the month she visited the Amisom camp.
The women and girls told us they were either raped or approached for sex while seeking much-needed medical assistance or water on Amisom’s bases — one of the few occasions they come into contact with Amisom soldiers who are often confined to their bases.
Others, such as Idil, were recruited directly from the camps by Somali intermediaries, or by women already having sex for money with Amisom troops.
Some soldiers raped women and girls and then gave them food or money in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex or discourage them from filing a complaint.
Some soldiers exposed women to serious health risks. Idil said she worries because the soldier never used a condom. She has not been tested: “I do not want to know if I have Aids. If I have it, I will go crazy.”
Survivors told us they felt powerless and feared reprisals from their attackers, government officials, even their own families but also from Al Shabaab, which targets perceived supporters of foreign forces.
“People in my community found out that I was visiting the Ugandan base,” Idil said. “I received harassing phone calls from people who said they were connected to al Shabaab and they threatened to kill me for associating with Amisom.”
Others feared losing their only source of income.
It is unclear where a survivor in Mogadishu should go to report exploitation or abuse. Ugandan and Burundian military officials and lawyers told me that the women could “just come to the base,” but most are unlikely to, fearing further harm.
The Amisom leadership acknowledged that they need to set up a functioning complaints mechanism and have started to appoint staff who, if adequately trained, could receive complaints and work with sexual abuse survivors.
Uganda and Burundi have exclusive legal jurisdiction over their forces in Somalia. As AU troops mentor Somali armed forces to fight al Shabaab they should lead by example and rid their ranks of those abusing their power, violating the trust of local communities, and undermining the credibility of the mission.
Rather than dismissing or denying allegations, troop-contributing countries should hold their own soldiers accountable for their conduct in Somalia.
This will require troop contributors to reinforce their investigative and prosecutorial capacity in Somalia. Uganda sent a military court to Somalia in late 2012 to try wrongdoing by its soldiers.
This can help facilitate evidence gathering, ensure witnesses are available to testify, better assure victims of justice, and serve as a deterrent. Unfortunately, the court was recalled in 2013 without explanation, but the model should be replicated.
With very few exceptions ,there have been no criminal prosecutions or disciplinary proceedings for sexual exploitation and abuse by Amisom troops. Ugandan military officials told me of only one rape case awaiting trial in Kampala.
Given the increasing number of AU peace support operations across Africa, the AU should work to prevent and eliminate sexual abuse and exploitation by its forces.
Establishing a conduct and discipline unit within Amisom and future AU missions as well as an independent investigative body that could step in when troop-contributing countries fail to respond to allegations is critical.
The Somali government and its partners should help displaced people move beyond mere survival. This will need a long-term effort to improve the fate of displaced communities and provide women with alternative livelihoods.
But at the same time, Amisom and its donors —including the UN, European Union, United Kingdom, and United States — need to place greater emphasis on accountability within Amisom and support expanded UN human-rights monitoring.
Idil’s father kicked her out when he learned how she was surviving. She says she will never be able to return to her previous life given the stigma and social and physical impact of her experience.
With commitment and leadership Amisom can ensure that its forces are not the cause of further suffering of Mogadishu’s displaced women and girls.
Laetitia Bader is an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of a new report, “‘The Power These Men Have Over Us’: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by African Union Forces in Somalia.”