International Order & Conflict

The African Union’s New Focus: Reducing Sexual Exploitation And Abuse In Peacekeeping

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Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of United Nations (U.N.) International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. As we recognize the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual violence during times of conflict, in the failed state of Somalia African troops are confronting Al-Shabaab and other armed opposition groups who pose a threat to the recognized Somali government and the security of the Somali people. These troops are fighting under the command of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). AMISOM is now being asked to confront a new threat — the threat of sexual exploitation and abuse that their own troops pose to Somali women and girls.  

African Union peacekeeping operations are young compared to United Nations operations and are just beginning to build their institutional capacity. AMISOM is the flagship mission and with 22,126 uniformed personnel, is the largest and most challenging of all the African Union missions. Even with so many troops on the ground, the African Union was doing business without focusing on conduct and discipline, until last year.  AMISOM’s zero-tolerance policy towards sexual exploitation and abuse was launched in September 2013 and only recently has the African Union committed to establishing the policies, procedures, and expertise necessary to reduce instances of sexual exploitation and abuse.

AMISOM’s credibility and reputation have suffered as a result of recent sexual exploitation and abuse allegations. In September, Human Rights Watch released a report that accused internationally-funded African Union peacekeepers in Somalia of raping women and girls as young as 12 and trading food and medicine for sex. Since the allegations surfaced, AMISOM has worked to reinforce sexual exploitation and abuse prevention efforts.

The African Union has committed to making sexual exploitation and abuse policy a priority. A “Leadership Capacity Building and Strategy Formulation Workshop on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse” was held between October 9 and 11 of this year. At the opening of the workshop, the head of AMISOM, Ambassador Maman Sambo Sidikou explained, “AMISOM must continually seek to improve our systems and processes in order to respond to the dynamics of the mission, particularly on issues that affect the most vulnerable in society, such as those of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls.” Mathangani hopes, “leadership will buy in and appreciate why this is an issue, so they are committed to dealing with [SEA] in the mission.” Her objective is to “get leadership to internalize the issue themselves.”

Because member state troop contributors have exclusive jurisdiction to investigate and punish crimes committed by their soldiers, involvement of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council is essential. Although Mathangani says troop-contributing countries are “hard on their troops for misconduct, they don’t report.” She believes the Peace and Security Council’s military attaché committee must be made more robust in order to effectively follow-up with member states and keep track of troop contributing country investigations of SEA.

“We should be able to better follow-up with member states than the U.N.,” says Mathangani. The Peace and Security Council is structured differently than the U.N., without permanent members or veto powers. This contributes to a “quicker, direct link [between the AU and] its member states on every issue and there is a clear sense of solidarity among African states in dealing with conflicts.”

Between now and the end of the year, the African Union will release multiple policy documents intended to reduce the occurrence of sexual exploitation and abuse, including an overall policy framework on conduct and discipline. The framework will focus on the “long-term and not just immediate solutions,” says Mathangani. The African Union plans to develop specialized sexual exploitation and abuse training modules and establish a telephone hotline, through which the community can report abuses.                  

However, any sexual exploitation and abuse policy must be implemented by personnel on the ground. The African Union is currently recruiting personnel experienced in sexual exploitation and abuse prevention to establish a conduct and discipline team in AMISOM. So far, the process has been extremely difficult. Mathangani says the African Union is struggling to hire experienced investigators who are willing to work in volatile Somalia, when they could instead work in U.N. missions, which are generally safer. “The African Union terms of reference are just not as attractive as the U.N.’s,” says Mathangani.

The African Union also has to deal with a financial framework that the U.N. does not have to contend with. Financial resources for hiring personnel are in a trust fund that is not directly under African Union control. Staff recruitment is constrained by this structure, which limits the number of personnel that can be hired through the regular budget.   

Mathangani believes the African Union must also do a better job of communicating prevention efforts to the public. “A more robust communication system is needed to share the achievements that are being made and discuss the difficult context the A.U. is dealing with,” says Mathangani. “The media is interested in the negatives, but over the next 3 months a lot of positive things are happening in the African Union,” she continues, “the brilliant architecture of the African Union in dealing with conflict needs to be showcased.” 

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Photo credit: UN Women Gallery via flickr

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