Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 13:55 GMT

Liberia: Protect Refugees Against Sexual Abuse

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 20 April 2011
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Liberia: Protect Refugees Against Sexual Abuse , 20 April 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4db6617d1a.html [accessed 21 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

(Geneva) - 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 today. 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."

Where Refugees Fled and Why
The vast majority of the 150,000 refugees from Côte d'Ivoire who have streamed into eastern Liberia since November have fled to well over one hundred villages in two counties on Liberia's eastern border with Côte d'Ivoire. As of April 14, UNHCR and its partners had registered 93,533 refugees in Nimba County and 43,608 in Grand Gedeh County, although registration challenges for UNHCR means some may have been registered twice.

Since early April, just under 15,000 refugees have fled to at least 11 villages in Liberia's far southeastern county, Maryland, where UNHCR is setting up transit centers and planning to build a camp.

Thousands have fled to large towns, such as Zwedru in Grand Gedeh County, or live in one of four UNHCR-run transit centers in Nimba and Grand Gedeh Counties that are designed to shelter refugees for weeks, or at most months, before moving them to longer-term camps once they are ready. The smallest number live in the region's only camp for the new refugees, Bahn camp, in Nimba County.

Many of the villages in Nimba County where refugees have been taken in are right on the border, and others are up to 30 kilometers away. The Liberian authorities and UNHCR fear the villages are at risk of attack or infiltration by armed groups from Côte d'Ivoire, and UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that as of late March there had been three such incidents. In two further incidents, shells landed in the villages.

Other aid agencies said they believed there was a real risk that fighters loyal to Côte d'Ivoire's new president, Alassane Ouattara, might attack Liberian border villages suspected of harboring refugees from parts of Côte d'Ivoire known to have supported former President Laurent Gbagbo.

The tens of thousands of newly arrived refugees in Grand Gedeh fled western Côte d'Ivoire in March as the Republican Forces of Côte d'Ivoire, loyal to Ouattara, moved south. According to a previous report by Human Rights Watch, the Republican Forces killed hundreds of ethnic Guéré civilians perceived as supporting Gbagbo as they made their way south, raping more than 20 women and girls and burning at least 10 villages. Aid agencies in Liberia have also recently reported that large numbers of refugees told them they were raped in Côte d'Ivoire.

Since Ouattara took power on April 11, UNHCR and other aid agencies agree that the mostly ethnic Guéré - known in Liberia as the Krahn - refugees in Grand Gedeh are unlikely to return home any time soon. The fierce violence they suffered at the hands of Ouattara's forces was probably due to their ethnicity and their real or perceived support for Gbagbo, whose militias in the far west were drawn in large part from Guéré areas. All the women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Grand Gedeh said they were afraid of going home until they were sure it would be safe.

Tens of thousands of refugees in villages in Nimba County have resisted moving away from the border. UNHCR has unsuccessfully carried out three information campaigns to encourage them to move to the Bahn camp, which complies with UNHCR's global requirement that refugee camps be located at a "reasonable distance [and] depending on the geographic circumstances, at least 50 kilometers" from the border.

Bahn camp can shelter up to 15,000 people, but as of April 14 had just under 3,000. As alternatives, UNHCR and the Liberian authorities have encouraged refugees in Nimba County to move to any of the 15 "relocation communities" - small and large villages - located up to 30 kilometers from the border. The villages can accommodate 10,000 people, but as of April 14 only around 1,500 refugees had moved there.

Most refugees in Nimba are ethnic Yacouba from areas of Côte d'Ivoire due east of Nimba County, the Danané region, controlled by forces loyal to Ouattara, the Forces Nouvelles ("New Forces"), since 2002. The Yacouba were perceived as supporting Gbagbo during the November 2010 elections, although they were not linked to Gbagbo to the same degree as the Guéré.

The Nimba refugees remain in the border villages because of their close ties to the local community through historic cross-border trade and marriages, and a wish to remain close to their home villages. Aid workers said that Bahn camp and the relocation villages are primarily located in territory populated by the Gio ethnic group who are related to the Yacouba. A minority of refugees in Nimba are from the Guéré ethnic group, who do not want to go to Gio areas.

In early April, UNHCR and other agencies told Human Rights Watch that an unknown number of refugees in the northern part of Nimba had already returned home, in some cases leaving one or two relatives in the villages to benefit from ongoing aid. Their willingness to return home - in contrast to the Guéré refugees in Grand Gedeh - may be because the majority fled their villages in anticipation of abuses by forces loyal to Ouattara and therefore avoided the trauma they would have suffered had they faced violence by those forces. It may also be because they were targeted less because of their ethnicity and more because of individual- or community-wide perceived political support for Gbagbo.

UNHCR and other agencies say they will continue to provide aid to all refugees in Nimba County.

Villagers' Hospitality Under Strain
Since the beginning of the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire in December, villagers in Nimba and in Grand Gedeh Counties - among the poorest places on earth, according to the UN - have responded with extraordinary hospitality, as hosts for tens of thousands of refugees for months on end.

Yet especially in Grand Gedeh, the refugees have placed tremendous strain on villages, which even before the crisis faced food shortages, according to the UN. In many villages, the number of refugees now matches or exceeds the number of Liberians, leading to inevitable tensions between villagers and refugees.

Human Rights Watch spoke with a number of refugees who said they were sleeping in a single room with 15 to 30 others. In two villages, refugees said local women told them they were not allowed to drink from the village's main water pump and instead drank stream water, which made them and their children ill.

UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that despite these strains, in some cases village chiefs were encouraging refugees to stay so that the villagers would also receive assistance.

Dozens of refugees told Human Rights Watch, though, that villagers had told them there was no more food and shelter and that they should leave the village and go to the towns. Refugee representatives in two villages said that refugees desperate to escape the saturated villages and food shortages there had tried to find a place to stay in Grand Gedeh County's main town, Zwedru, but had returned after they could not find anyone willing to let them stay in their homes.

Women and girls in Zwedru told Human Rights Watch they had found nowhere to stay and therefore slept under the open sky, on open-air walkways outside school classrooms, or out in the open at the compound of the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC). A number of refugees said that Liberian men entered the commission's compound every night and demanded sex from the women and girls. Commission officials said they were unaware of the situation and that they would speak with the two private security guards who patrol the gate at night.

A 14-year-old girl who had witnessed killings by machete and rape in her village in Côte d'Ivoire said that a Liberian man had tried to rape her at the Commission's compound the night of March 26:

In the middle of the night I woke up because a Liberian man covered my mouth and pulled at my clothes. I tried to shout and struggled but he continued to try and take off my clothes. Another refugee woke up and pulled him off me and he fled. I was so scared, I left and have been sleeping under the roof of a school very close by, but I am still scared.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed a number of women and girls sleeping every night out in the open at the same school. They said that every night Liberian men demanded sex in exchange for money or food and shelter. Some of the more desperate women with hungry children said they accepted.

Refugee representatives in a number of villages in Grand Gedeh said that many refugees would be willing to move to a camp immediately if they could receive appropriate food and shelter there, and almost all of the women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch agreed.

Urgent Need for Camps, Transit Centers in Grand Gedeh
In response to the new influx in Grand Gedeh, UNHCR plans to set up three new transit centers - in the village of Duoge and the towns of Solo and Zwedru - where it can register and temporarily assist between 2,000 and 5,000 refugees at each site before moving them to one or more new camps.

UNHCR told Human Rights Watch its preferred location for two camps with a joint capacity of around 30,000 refugees is close to the towns of Zwedru and Ziah. The Liberian refugee commission supports the idea of moving refugees into camps. However, the commission said Zwedru and Ziah are too close to the border and that in line with UNHCR's own guidelines the camps should ideally be located at least 50 kilometers from the border as the crow flies.

Instead, the commission has proposed two camps in the villages of Pollar and Zeleken, approximately 60 kilometers from the border, and local villagers say they are willing to loan refugees 200 acres of land for agricultural work. The commission said a number of bridges would need to be repaired between the Grand Gedeh's main road, between Zwedru and Toe Town, and the villages, which would benefit the local community in the long-term.

Human Rights Watch called on UNHCR and the Liberian commission to come to a quick decision on where to locate the camps and to begin building them without delay. It also urged donors to give generously to enable quick construction.

Exploitation by Host Families in Zwedru
Women and girls living with host families in Zwedru town told Human Rights Watch they faced violence and carried out eight- to twelve-hour days of manual labor in fields or in homes in exchange for shelter.

One 14-year-old girl separated from her family in Côte d'Ivoire said she had lived for two weeks with a family in Zwedru and that "the woman of the house always beats me and forces me to do all the house work all day long." Refugees told Human Rights Watch they ate only scraps of food left by the families.

Other women and girls said that the man of the host family denied them food when they refused to have sex with him. Some said that when other men in the area found out they were living as refugees in the area, the men constantly approached them in the streets asking them to have sex in exchange for food or money.

Food Concerns
Because food is in short supply in eastern Liberia, especially in Grand Gedeh County, refugees are dependent on aid agencies and in particular on WFP for food.

But WFP in Liberia is facing a food shortage and only has a limited stock of bulgur wheat, which was due to run out by mid-April. Refugee women and girls and many other refugees told Human Rights Watch that the wheat makes them and their children ill. Many said this was the main reason they were engaging in survival sex.

A 17-year-old girl with epilepsy who looks after three children in Toe Town refugee transit center told Human Rights Watch:

The food they gave us here makes the children ill. I have to find food we can eat for three children, my parents, and for me so I have no choice. I am with the men about twice a week to make enough money to buy food. I know it is not good because I have a mixed up mind but I have no choice.

Three sisters living in a village between Zwedru and Toe Town said they had received no food aid, that the village was running out of food because of the refugees, and that they had therefore started to have sex with men in the village who had offered them money to "be their wives." They said they knew many other women who were doing the same and that they were planning to use the money they made to try and start some kind of trade so they could all stop having sex in exchange for food and shelter.

Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch who said the wheat made them and their children ill said they simply cooked the wheat like rice. WFP says an information campaign about how to prepare the wheat - pounding it and then ideally soaking it for at least an hour - began on April 11 in the Ziah transit center in Grand Gedeh.

Since January, one of WFP's partner nongovernmental organizations in Nimba County has distributed 56,000 food rations in 12 villages for refugees living in 91 villages throughout the county. The refugees are required to collect the food in the 12 villages and as of April 18, a second distribution was ongoing. WFP says the limited amount of food available has meant some villages have received more food than others. WFP has also distributed food to the small number of refugees living in the county's three transit centers, 15 relocation villages, and, since April 2, in Bahn camp.

In Grand Gedeh County as of April 18, just under 10,000 refugees living in 17 villages and in Zwedru and 11,000 in the Toe Town transit centre had received 15-day food rations from WFP.

WFP officials said they only became aware in early April that refugees in Grand Gedeh - though not in Nimba - were complaining that the bulgur wheat was making them ill. However, WFP officials also said they knew since December that rice was the refugees' preferred staple food and that their staff in Nimba had heard that "refugees were getting used to the bulgur after initial use."

As a result, in all its appeals for assistance since January, WFP says it has explicitly asked donors to either give cash, so WFP can buy rice and more bulgur wheat, or to directly donate rice. WFP has also asked donors to provide just under 25,000 metric tons of food for 150,000 refugees and 36,000 Liberians, which would cover their food needs until the end of 2011.

As of April 18, donors had contributed $15.6 million and WFP had ordered just over 3,500 metric tons of rice to be shipped over the next months to Liberia, which will cover the needs of just under 140,000 refugees for two months.

On April 20, WFP said it had received 240 metric tons of rice taken on loan and that a further 900 metric tons were due to arrive by ship by the end of April. Also as of April 18, WFP in Liberia said it had received 250 metric tons of bulgur wheat from WFP Sierra Leone and 200 metric tons of rice from WFP in Guinea. Both shipments are due to arrive by the end of April.

WFP said it would make it a priority to distribute food in transit centers, relocation villages, and camps in both Grand Gedeh and Nimba Counties because they are at a safer distance from the border than the villages and distribution there is logistically easier there than in villages.

Human Rights Watch called on donors to respond generously to WFP appeals for cash or rice donations for the refugee response in eastern Liberia.

Police, Refugee Commission Response to Sexual Exploitation
Under Liberian law, prostitution is a criminal offense for both the prostitute and her or his client. Sexual intercourse with a girl under age 18 and any threat of violence during sex constitutes rape, and is punishable with a sentence of up to life in prison. The law also criminalizes a wide range of behavior by third parties promoting prostitution.

Based on numerous independent assessments, Liberia's police force remains weak. As of March, Liberia had 4,000 trained police officers, one for every 875 citizens, compared with a citizen-police ratio of 1:400 in South Africa and a 1:500 worldwide average. A large number of Liberian police officers are stationed in the capital, Monrovia.

As reported by Human Rights Watch in its 2011 annual report on Liberia, despite some improvements to law enforcement, Liberia's undisciplined, poorly managed, and ill-equipped police force struggles to maintain law and order and engages in unprofessional and sometimes abusive and criminal behavior, including frequent absenteeism, extortion, bribery, and in a few cases assault and rape. Police often fail to investigate alleged criminals adequately, and when they make arrests, suspects are often freed.

Lack of funding for transportation and communications equipment further undermines the effectiveness of the national police, especially in rural areas.

Limited improvements in the police's willingness to prosecute suspects are undermined by the country's weak judicial system, which suffers from a lack of personnel, including prosecutors and defense lawyers, inadequate court infrastructure and logistics, archaic rules of procedure, poor case management and unprofessional and corrupt judicial staff.

The deputy inspector general of police told Human Rights Watch that despite the limited number of officers and inadequate logistics, including vehicles to enforce anti-prostitution and anti-rape laws, the police would "continue to raise public awareness that men should not be sleeping with refugees, which is wrong." He also said the police in Toe Town would ensure that small hotels there do not operate as brothels. The police in Toe Town told Human Rights Watch they had made no prostitution arrests there in recent years.

In light of its findings that refugee girls and women are being raped and are facing other forms of sexual abuses, Human Rights Watch called on the police - especially its "Women and Children Protection" section, which covers rape cases involving women and children - to patrol in locations where sexual abuse is likely to take place, such as hotels, bars, clubs, and restaurants, and to hold perpetrators of abuse to account.

Human Rights Watch also called on the police to use Community Policing Fora - village committees who contact the police when they see problems - to deter men throughout the border region from soliciting refugee women and girls for sex and to work closely with the Liberian Refugee Commission and UNHCR to end sexual exploitation of refugees.

Liberian Refugee Commission officials in Zwedru told Human Rights Watch they were not surprised refugee women and girls in Toe Town had to exchange sex for food because the town was overcrowded and there was little food. They also said that there was no prostitution in Zwedru before the refugees arrived, though aid workers in Zwedru disagree.

Commission officials in Monrovia said they would take immediate steps to make sure outsiders would no longer enter the commission's compound in Zwedru at night to solicit refugee women and girls, and that they would do more to ensure that commission staff identify women and girls engaged in survival sex so the commission can do more to protect them.

Monitoring Refugees to Protect Them
In mid-April, 125 Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) staff in Nimba were to begin formal monitoring ("protection monitoring") of newly arrived refugees in that county on behalf of UNHCR. In mid-April, UNHCR said it had also identified NRC as a possible future protection monitoring partner in Grand Gedeh.

As of April 11, UNHCR's Liberia operation is funded at only 22 percent of its budgeted needs, placing pressure on the agency to prioritize certain activities over others.

The Liberian refugee commission said it has 19 field monitors working country-wide, including in the border areas. Other agencies with protection staff include the Liberian Red Cross, with 53 volunteers who work the full length of Liberia's 716 kilometer border with Côte d'Ivoire and collect information on vulnerable children, among other issues. It reports to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Neither the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which has expertise to protect women and girls, nor the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN child protection agency, have UNHCR's capacity to work with significant numbers of protection monitors in Liberia, although some of UNICEF's partners undertake limited protection monitoring as part of their humanitarian aid work.

Human Rights Watch called on the UNHCR urgently to train protection monitors to work in Grand Gedeh and Maryland counties to identify refugee women and girls vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Government and Nongovernmental Agency Response to Sexual Abuse Cases
Various government ministries, the police, the Liberian refugee commission, UN agencies, and nongovernmental organizations in eastern Liberia have longstanding joint procedures, known as "referral pathways," for responding to specific cases involving sexual and gender-based violence, by providing medical and psychosocial support, increased security, and justice to those affected. During the week of April 11, agencies in Nimba were updating these procedures.

Largely because of Liberia's two armed conflicts (1989-1997 and 1999-2003), Liberian women and girls have been subjected to widespread sexual violence and other abuses. According to a 2005 study, around 70 percent of women were raped during the conflict and 13 percent of women suffered rape in the two years after it ended. A 2008 survey commissioned by the UN across the country found that one woman in five interviewed knew someone who had been raped, with 70 percent of those rapes after 2003. Only 12.5 percent of women said their rape cases had been reported to the police. They gave numerous reasons, including fear of shame in the community and a belief the police would not handle the case well.

A dedicated court for sexual violence was established in Monrovia in 2009, but efforts to prosecute these cases have been hampered by deficiencies in the justice system.

The studies also concluded that the overall socio-economic situation in Liberia, exacerbated by 14 years of conflict, has exposed many young women and girls to sexual abuse and exploitation by people in positions of power - local authorities and business people - and by women's sexual partners. The study said that many women were easily exploited because they needed to earn money to support their families.

In response to these trends, the Liberian authorities and the UN have set up a number of initiatives including the UN Joint Program on Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), which builds on the Government's National GBV Plan of Action, its Taskforce, and the work of a GBV unit in the Ministry of Gender and Development. The Joint Program commits four UN agencies, including UNHCR, and the UN Peacekeeping Force in Liberia (UNMIL) to a joint response with national and international nongovernmental organizations to address SGBV issues, including sexual abuse and exploitation.

Human Rights Watch called on UNHCR and the Liberian Refugee Commission to work closely with these structures to address exploitation of refugee women and girls.

Methodology
As part of an 11-day research trip to Liberia, two Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 55 refugee women and girls from Côte d'Ivoire between April 1 and 4 living in a refugee transit center, in villages, and in small and large towns in Grand Gedeh county in eastern Liberia about sexual exploitation and other forms of exploitative practices by Liberians. Human Rights Watch interviewed one or at most two women at a time in confidential settings. In each case, Human Rights Watch explained that the interview had nothing to do with assistance and was aimed at advocating with the authorities and United Nations for better refugee protection in Liberia.

Most of the women and girls said they had fled Côte d'Ivoire without their husbands or parents and other relatives. The refugees said that Liberian men approached them in various locations - a transit center, village and town streets, homes of host families, in schools, and under open skies where they were sleeping in villages - and offered money, shelter, or food in exchange for sex.

Nine girls and 22 women said they were having sex with Liberian men in exchange for money, food, or shelter, and 11 said they knew many other women and girls doing the same. The majority of women and girls said the men they had sex with had threatened them with violence or had become violent during sex. Thirteen girls and eight women said Liberian men had approached them offering money, shelter, or food in exchange for sex but that they had had said no. Three of the girls, who were living with host families, said they were denied food as punishment if they refused sex. One girl said a Liberian man attempted to rape her one night in the Liberian refugee commission compound in Zwedru. Two girls and one woman said they faced violence in their host families, and four girls said they were forced to work long hours while living with host families.

Given that a majority of the 55 refugee women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed in Grand Gedeh in just four days said they had turned to survival sex, Human Rights Watch concluded that it is highly likely that survival sex is widespread among the recently arrived Ivorian refugees in Grand Gedeh County and possibly in other counties hosting refugees in eastern Liberia.

Between March 29 and April 8, Human Rights Watch also spoke with the police and the Liberian refugee commission at the local and the national level, with UNHCR, UNICEF, and the UN Population Fund, and with a wide range of nongovernmental groups working in Nimba and Grand Gedeh Counties.

Recommendations

To the Liberian police:

  • Ensure that police are adequately trained to respond to the needs of victims of sexual abuse.
  • Patrol in locations where sexual abuse of refugee women and girls is likely to take place, such as hotels, bars, clubs, and restaurants.
  • In line with Liberian criminal law, arrest anyone involved in crimes against women and girls, including rape, forced prostitution, forced labor, and child prostitution and abuse.
  • Increase the number of female police officers in the border areas, including in the Women and Children Protection Section, and ensure that they are adequately trained to respond to victims of sexual exploitation.
  • Encourage villagers participating in Community Police Fora in villages in all areas that are hosts to refugees to report to the police any cases in which men solicit sex with refugee women and girls and to help identify victims of crimes, including rape, forced prostitution, and child prostitution and abuse.
  • Collaborate with local women's organizations to encourage them to report men who solicit refugees for sex and to help women and girls who have been sexually exploited.
  • Promote English and French versions of the government and aid agencies' referral pathway for sexual abuse and exploitation - procedures for helping individual women and girls facing sexual and gender based violence currently being updated by the UN Population Fund - in all villages and towns hosting refugees.

To the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC):

  • Rapidly reach an agreement with UNHCR on locations for at least two camps in Grand Gedeh County to reduce massive overcrowding in host villages and to improve help and protection for refugees, including women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
  • Work closely with UNHCR to ensure the camps are adequately secured by Liberian police and if necessary the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) peacekeepers.
  • Work closely with UNHCR and other aid agency to inform refugees throughout the villages and towns in Grand Gedeh about the option of moving to a camp where protection and appropriate food and other services will be available.
  • Promote English and French versions of the government and aid agencies' referral pathway for sexual abuse and exploitation in all villages and towns that are hosts to refugees.

 

To UNHCR:

  • Rapidly reach an agreement with the Liberian Refugee Commission on locations for at least two camps in Grand Gedeh to reduce massive overcrowding in host villages and to better assist and protect refugees, including women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
  • Ensure that everyone working in camps is trained to identify and respond to the needs of victims of sexual exploitation and violence.
  • Ensure the camps are adequately secured by Liberian police and international civilian police working for UNMIL and engage protection monitors and Human Rights officers working for UNMIL to monitor closely the behavior of all security personnel to ensure they do not exploit refugees in the camps.
  • Urgently recruit and train protection monitors for Grand Gedeh and Maryland counties and ensure that they, and protection monitors in Nimba, include sufficient numbers of women who are adequately trained in identifying refugee women and girls involved in prostitution or subject to other forms of exploitation.
  • Collaborate with local women's organizations to encourage them to inform UNHCR of villages or parts of towns where large numbers of refugee women and girls are involved in prostitution or other forms of exploitation.
  • Promote English and French versions of the newly updated government and aid agencies' referral pathway for sexual abuse and exploitation in all villages and towns hosting refugees.

To WFP:

  • Ensure that refugees remaining in villages who do not wish to return to Côte d'Ivoire or relocate to relocation villages or camps receive food.
  • Publicly call on donors to WFP to provide cash or rice in response to WFP's appeals for food for the refugee response in eastern Liberia, including for Liberian villages and towns that are hosts to refugees.

To UNICEF and the UN Population Fund:

  • Work closely with UNHCR to ensure that protection monitors in eastern Liberia are adequately trained to identify and sensitively interview women and girls likely to be involved in prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation.
  • Work closely with UNHCR to ensure that the updated sexual and gender-based violence referral pathway is widely circulated in English and French in all locations known to host refugees.

 

To donor governments supporting Liberia and UN agencies:

  • Commit funds to increase the capacity of the Liberian criminal justice system, including the police, to address sexual abuse of women and children, including recruiting and training female police officers to specialize in working with women and children.
  • Generously respond to WFP appeals for cash or rice donations for the refugee response in eastern Liberia.
  • Ensure that UNHCR receives enough funds to increase its protection monitoring capacity in eastern Liberia.
  • Provide funding to build new refugee camps and support infrastructure in Grand Gedeh County.
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