Monday, May 8, 2006

The aid agency Save the Children says an alarming number of girls in Liberia, as young as eight, were having sex with UN peacekeepers, policemen, teachers and humanitarian aid workers in exchange for money, food or favours.

“People don’t really accept it but because of the financial constraints, people just have to do so. Most of them are in households headed by only the mother, catering for children. Their fathers got killed in the war, or some fathers are living but can’t afford to care for their children; they have to accept the situation, so there is no way out. “

The report says most people cited lack of economic and livelihood opportunities, as well as chronic poverty, as underlying causes for the ongoing exploitation of children. Parents reported feeling powerless to stop children who were having sex in exchange for goods and services, as they did not have the economic means to provide for their children. In some instances, families cited that transactional sex was a means of supporting the wider family to access things such as food or money to purchase food. In other cases, children identified more personal needs such as clothing or being able to access video clubs to watch films. The widespread nature of the problem meant it affected children in a broad cross section of environments.

The study, conducted by Save the Children, was intended to explore the ways in which children in ‘Internally Displaced Person’ (IDP) camps are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as they attempt to meet their basic and other needs. It also explored the roles and responsibilities of humanitarian agencies in providing more protective systems for the delivery of assistance. During the discussions in the field, 315 men, women and children were consulted.

The people of Liberia have experienced ongoing suffering over the past two decades as a result of war and displacement. Children have been drawn into this in many ways, such as recruitment into armed forces, separation from their families, witnessing atrocities, rape and torture. Thousands have been driven from their homes into exile in neighbouring countries or camps for IDPs within Liberia, the report says.

Liberia has been shattered by the 1989-2003 civil war which caused an estimated 250,000 deaths in a country of barely 3 million people. The war forced around 1.3 million people from their homes into camps around the capital Monrovia or abroad.

Elections late last year saw Harvard-trained former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf elected as the new president. Her government faces a massive task in rebuilding an economy and society torn apart by years of bloodshed. Many Liberians have been, and continue to be, heavily reliant on humanitarian assistance as a means of survival. Those who are able to find work often still live in chronic poverty with the national average wage being only US$50 per month.

The report found that people unanimously agree that attitudes have fundamentally changed since the war.

“It is like the cultural tradition is not holding any more. People have lost the cultural values and the tradition has been broken down. ”

Most people said that children were not involved in prostitution before the war, or to a very small extent, and that this only happened in the cities but not in the villages.