Dozens of Ivorian refugee women and girls recently arrived in eastern Liberia say they have had to engage in sex to get adequate food, shelter, or money, Human Rights Watch said. The Liberian government, the police, and United Nations agencies should take urgent measures to protect and assist vulnerable women and girls, including rapidly building protected shelter and helping them get sufficient and appropriate food, Human Rights Watch said.
Over four days in early April 2011, two Human Rights Watch researchers spoke with 55 refugee women and girls as young as 13 who had fled to Grand Gedeh from Côte d’Ivoire. They said that without adequate food assistance, they, or other refugees they knew well, had been compelled to engage in sex for money or basic necessities to help them and their children survive. Under Liberian law, sex with a girl under 18 is rape and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“Vulnerable women and girls in parts of eastern Liberia fleeing appalling violence in Côte d’Ivoire are being exposed to sexual abuse,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate for Human Rights Watch, who led the research. “They told us that they had no choice but to engage in sex to meet basic and pressing food and shelter needs.”
UN agencies, supported by donors, should identify vulnerable refugee women and girls, and provide them with appropriate food and protected shelter, while law enforcement authorities should prosecute those who commit crimes against them, Human Rights Watch said.
Most of the women and the vast majority of girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said their husbands or parents had been killed or that they had been separated from them before they fled Côte d’Ivoire, although some of the girls said they were engaged in survival sex to help support their parents.
A 25-year-old woman in the Toe Town transit center who had been gang raped by three armed men in Côte d’Ivoire before she fled to Liberia said:
I have five children to look after and the food here makes them ill. I have to make money for other food. During sex with men in Toe Town, they ask me to do things I don’t want to do and say they won’t pay me if I don’t agree. I need the money so I have no choice and I do what they say.
As of April 14, 2011, just under 150,000 Ivorian refugees – including almost 6,000 girls ages 12 to 17 and around 35,000 women under age 60 – have fled to Liberia since late November 2010 to escape widespread violence in Côte d’Ivoire, according to the UN refugee agency.
Most have settled in about 150 villages close to the border, where impoverished Liberian villagers straining under the influx have generously been their hosts, though some villagers have told refugees they have to leave because of a lack of food and housing.
Refugee women and girls told Human Rights Watch that the bulgur wheat they had received from the UN World Food Program (WFP) made them and their children ill. WFP officials told Human Rights Watch that beginning in January, WFP told donors it would prefer to be given rice, or money to buy rice, for the refugees.
On April 11, WFP began instructing refugees in some locations in Grand Gedeh County about the best way to prepare the wheat. On April 20 WFP said it had received a limited amount of rice to cover the needs of a few thousand refugees for a month and was expecting enough rice to feed just under 140,000 refugees for two months to arrive in the months to come.
Human Rights Watch found refugee women and girls in desperate situations, engaging in sex to obtain money for food or shelter, in every type of location where refugees have settled in Grand Gedeh County: in a refugee transit center next to a small town where they engaged in survival sex at night, in a large town, and in a number of villages that have taken refugees in.
The women and girls said that men approached them – at night as they slept in villages in schools sheltering dozens or hundreds of refugees or under open skies, or by day in villages and towns – and offered to give them food, shelter, or money in exchange for sex.
Refugee women and girls in Grand Gedeh said they were increasingly unable to find food or shelter as villages strain under the numbers. Many of those who have found places with host families in towns told Human Rights Watch that the families sometimes threatened them with violence and forced them to work or have sex for shelter and food.
Some said they were forced by their host families to do housework for long hours each day in exchange for a place on the floor at night and scraps of food. Some said that men in the families denied them food if they refused sexual advances.
Refugees in many villages – especially in Liberia’s Nimba County, most of whom arrived before February 24 – want to stay in the villages where WFP’s partners have been distributing food. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and aid agencies say that the women there want to stay close to their villages on the other side of the border.
However, the situation is different in Grand Gedeh County villages, where numerous refugee women and girls told Human Rights Watch they would prefer to go to camps to receive food and shelter so they could stop engaging in survival sex to feed their families. As of April 18, WFP had distributed bulgur wheat to some of these refugees: 9,000 in 17 villages and the town of Zwedru and about 11,000 in the Toe Town refugee transit center.
“Refugee camps are generally an option of last resort because they make refugees entirely dependent on aid agencies,” Simpson said. “But in Grand Gedeh County, camps now appear to be the only way to ensure that women and girls can be quickly and adequately fed, sheltered, and protected.”
Human Rights Watch called on the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, to make setting up camps in Grand Gedeh County for refugees wishing to go there a priority. It also urged the agency to move quickly to deploy protection monitors in the county to identify vulnerable women and girls engaged in survival sex or suffering other forms of exploitation.
More than half of the women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch who engaged in survival sex said they faced violence or threats of violence if they refused to engage in certain sexual acts or if they insisted on the use of condoms. Under Liberian law, coercive sex, including threats of violence, constitutes rape, punishable with a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Two sisters, ages 18 and 22, living in Toe Town said they had 10 children in their care to feed. They told Human Rights Watch that some of the men they had sex with slapped and punched them when they refused to comply with their demands. A 20-year-old woman, also in Toe Town, said one man had grabbed her by the throat when she asked him to wear a condom.
Human Rights Watch called on the Liberian criminal justice system, including the police in towns such as Zwedru and Toe Town, to take reasonable steps to ensure the protection of refugee women and girls. This could include patrolling in locations where sexual abuse of refugee women and girls is likely to take place, such as hotels, bars, clubs, and restaurants, and arresting and prosecuting those who use or threaten violence against refugee women and girls, or who have sex with girls under 18.
Human Rights Watch also called on the police to use existing community policing structures to encourage concerned Liberians to report abuse and rape of refugee women and girls. Human Rights Watch asked donors to help Liberia ensure that its police and justice systems can cope and ensure refugees’ safety.
“Refugee women and girls in eastern Liberia are clear on what it takes to make it possible for them to survive without exchanging sex for basic necessities,” Simpson said. “Despite the many logistical challenges in eastern Liberia, the steps UN agencies need to take are clear: get rice to the refugees, set up camps for shelter and safety, and identify vulnerable women and girls.”