In Haiti, a young woman I’ll call Marie became involved with a United Nations peacekeeper from Brazil when she was 14 years old. She became pregnant. He was sent back to Brazil; she was ostracized by her family. In 2017, when our research team met with Marie, she said that she and her son, by this time 4 years old, felt abandoned. “I haven’t ever received support from an NGO, from the Brazilians, from the Haitian state. It’s only me that’s giving to the child to eat because I can’t pay for school for the child.”
The goal of our study, funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, was intended to fill a glaring gap. Despite allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel, and media reports implicating peacekeepers in rape, human trafficking and sex with minors — across decades and countries — there was little empirical research focusing on the experiences of affected women and girls. By focusing on survivors, we hoped to better understand the context and social nuances that contribute to the crisis yet are rarely studied or revealed.
Over a three-month period in 2017, we zeroed in on the interactions between local women and girls and members of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or Minustah, which operated from 2004 to 2017. (That year, Minustah was replaced with a minimal operation focused primarily on helping to restore judicial institutions.)
A wide range of community members, both men and women, were asked to share their stories about what it was like to be a woman or girl living in an area that hosted foreign peacekeepers. Interviews were conducted in Creole by a team of 12 trained Haitian research assistants in the neighborhoods surrounding 10 UN peacekeeping bases in Haiti. Participants then interpreted the experiences using a qualitative/quantitative research tool called Cognitive Edge. We compiled 2,541 self-interpreted narratives, describing a variety of positive and negative interactions between peacekeepers and local women and girls.
Several themes emerged. The first was the focus of ” ‘They Put a Few Coins in Your Hand to Drop a Baby in You’: A Study of Peacekeeper-Fathered Children in Haiti,” which appeared in the journal of International Peacekeeping last month. Peacekeeper-fathered children in Haiti are so common — there are perhaps hundreds — they even have a name: “petits Minustahs.” And their stories are told differently from others, we found. Often, for example, the fathers are perceived as wealthy and able to provide support for their children, in contrast to the peacekeepers in stories that were not about fathering children.
Peacekeepers from Brazil were more often mentioned in stories about petits Minustahs than were troops from other countries, though some storytellers, perhaps mistakenly, said they were from Uruguay.
While relationships were more nuanced than outsiders might expect, the bigger picture is vividly clear. Lacking access to education and employment, many women and girls are drawn into transactional sex with peacekeepers in exchange for food and money. Inevitably, some pregnancies result, and the UN’s response is to simply send the implicated peacekeepers back to their home countries, leaving women to raise their children without the imagined support or assistance. These children typically grow up without access to education, thus perpetuating a cycle of poverty.
Some participants who spoke with us suggested that having fair-skinned children was a good thing, a notion that seemed to go hand in hand with an assumption that a fair-skinned foreigner would likely provide for his new family. Despite this belief, in our research we found no instance of child support by peacekeepers.
Not all sexual interactions were perceived as exploitive or abusive. Some study participants clearly described long-term love relationships between adult Haitian women and UN peacekeepers. And perhaps not surprising, stories of petits Minustahs were more likely to be perceived as the result of relationships, in contrast with other interactions that were seen as more “business” in nature.
As one woman, in Port Salut, recalled, “So, I met with one, we talked, then we became friends . . . then the friendship went further, and after a lot of time we were in love. I was 17 years old and he had a party for me and we started a sexual relationship. So, I became pregnant and then my parents found out. They put him in jail for a month and he went back to his country. When he got there, I used to call him, he sent me money until I gave birth, since then I have not heard from him again.”
The UN has reached out to our study team, and we hope we can discuss the results with them in more detail sometime soon.
We conducted this research with Haitian partners, two civil society organizations known by their acronyms, BAI and KOFAVIV, and a third a school of social work, known by its acronym, ETS. Our survey was written collaboratively by representatives from each organization and pilot-tested in Haiti to improve clarity and confirm the English to Creole translations. Digitally collecting more than 2,500 stories, some in remote areas with limited electricity and Internet access, was challenging at times. Additionally, there were some security concerns, and in one location, data collection ended prematurely because of these concerns.
As one of the lead researchers (in collaboration with Dr. Sabine Lee, at the University of Birmingham in Britain), I visited Haiti four times between 2017 and 2019. While I was initially surprised by the frequency with which sexual interactions between UN personnel and Haitian women and girls occurred, what troubled me more was the degree to which these sexual interactions were normalized in Haitian society. We found widespread acceptance of women and girls exchanging sex with peacekeepers to meet their basic needs, to pay school fees or to obtain desirable items like mobile phones.
While the UN offers sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) training, it’s arguably not having much impact. Part of the problem may be poor cultural understanding. I would argue that peacekeepers need to understand how much pervasive and extreme poverty exists in many nations that host peacekeeping operations. Peacekeepers need to recognize how lack of opportunity leads to transactional sex. Peacekeepers need to realize that even if a woman or girl appears to engage willingly, valid consent cannot be freely given when there are so few ways to make ends meet.
Better prevention and mitigation strategies are urgently needed. Hopefully, research like ours will reach the right ears and lead to meaningful change.
Susan A. Bartels is an associate professor of emergency medicine at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, holds a cross-appointment in the Department of Public Health Sciences and is an emergency physician. As a clinician-scientist, Dr. Bartels conducts global public health research on how people are affected by humanitarian crises, including armed conflict and natural disasters. Her particular focus is on women and children. https://emergencymed.queensu.ca/faculty-staff/susan-bartels