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Sexual Abuse Allegations Plague S.Sudan Protection Site

FILE - Evalina, a South Sudanese teenage victim of sexual abuse, points on a map to Unity state in South Sudan, indicating the location where she used to live, March 9, 2015. She said she escaped to Khartoum after being imprisoned by gunmen.

International aid organizations implicated in a recent investigative report on sexual abuse, which allegedly occurred at a South Sudan Protection of Civilians (POC) site, say they regret the allegations and are taking action to look into the cases.

A report by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera say sexual abuse has continued for years in South Sudan’s Malakal United Nations camp, locally known as POC site, where thousands of internally displaced persons first sought refuge in 2013.

The investigation implicated some aid workers with the International Organization for Migration, The French Medical Charity Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the World Food Program (WFP) and World Vision (WV).

The report found out rape and sexual abuse of minors and in some cases, women and girls were reportedly pressured to have sex for gifts. The report said the allegations of sexual abuse first emerged in 2015 and the scale of abuse has since grown despite a U.N.-led task force charged with tackling the problem.

South Sudan’s Minister of Information Michael Makuei said the U.N. should be held responsible for any abuses committed at POC sites, adding the government is not able to carry out any investigations at the sites because the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) does not grant access to South Sudan officials.

“UNMISS has decided to bar any government officials from entering the POC. They are the one who are managing it, and they are the one doing everything, and if there are any offenses being committed then they should be the ones to be accused,” Makuei told VOA's South Sudan in Focus program.

Gemma Snowdon heads WFP's communications in South Sudan. He told South Sudan in Focus there is no place for sexual exploitation or abuse at WFP.

“WFP treats any allegation with the utmost seriousness. When an allegation is received, it is acted upon swiftly, including immediate support and protection to the victim as warranted, and each allegation is thoroughly reviewed,” Snowdon said.

Snowden says since 2017, humanitarian organizations in South Sudan through the Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Task Force have worked to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, including reporting of allegations.

“We recognize there is always room for improvement and are steadfast in employing every effort to end SEA while empowering and equipping victims to be supported, to be safe, and to be heard,” Snowdon said.

In a statement last week, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it has been working to address abuse, exploitation and harassment of women and girls for many years.

“MSF cannot deny the role that media have played to focus public attention in driving greater and faster change within their organization, and potentially in encouraging people to come forward,” said the statement.

While the issues and incidents highlighted in the report may be “painful,” MSF said it is important they are brought to light.

“As per our protocol, the MSF staff member in question was suspended whilst we gathered information to understand what happened before taking a decision on appropriate measures,” MSF said.

The medical organization said it conducted an internal investigation but did not find any evidence to substantiate allegations of attempted rape.

The IOM mission chief Peter Van der Auweraert said his organization is taking steps to address the sexual abuse allegations.

“IOM’s office of the investigator general investigated two cases where a complainant alleged to have been impregnated by an IOM staff member. We do not have certainty based on the scarcity of information provided by The New Humanitarian that these are the same complainants mentioned in the article,” Van der Auweraert told South Sudan in Focus.

The IOM statement said staff members voluntarily submitted to DNA testing, the DNA tests returned negative for paternity and the investigations were subsequently finalized.

IOM said it has a policy of zero tolerance for sexual exploitation by IOM staff members, employees or any other persons engaged by IOM contractors.

World Vision said it had opened an investigation into the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl, according to The New Humanitarian.

UNMISS chief Nicholas Haysom said the U.N will investigate the allegations and even though the report does not implicate its staff directly, the mission takes no comfort in that knowledge.

Rebecca Nyangeer, an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) living at the POC site in Malakal, said U.N. agencies and NGOs are supposed to be help IDPs, and not exploiting them.

“Those who came running away from violence and who have no place to stay came here to seek help from the NGOs. People who have children like us are very vulnerable, but if there are reports that they have been taking small girls or women then that is what scares us,” Nyangeer told South Sudan in Focus.

Mading, another IDP living at the Malakal POC site, said management of U.N. agencies and NGOs should take action to prevent further abuses.

“This has been alarming and annoying at the same time because when the NGOs who are the very people carrying out GBV awareness are the ones taking advantage then it is not acceptable. Any institution concerned should make sure these people are thoroughly investigated,” Mading told VOA.

South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission chairperson Manasseh Lomole did not answer repeated calls for comments on this story.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres requested an urgent report detailing the actions taken to address sexual exploitation and abuse across the U.N.’s operations in South Sudan and ensure accountability.