It’s not a gift when it comes with price: A qualitative study of transactional sex between UN peacekeepers and Haitian citizens

Athena R. Kolbe 2015
2015

Summary

Sexual exploitation of civilians by peacekeepers undermines the fragile stability established in post-conflict settings. Despite this, it continues to be an ongoing problem for peacekeeping missions worldwide.  This article presents data from a study that explores the opinions and experiences of Haitians who engage in transactional sex with peacekeepers. The findings present a contradiction between individual benefits and individual and mezzo-level costs. It suggests that adhering to the regulations around sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) would contribute to the broader societal need to recognise the unique contribution of women to the conflict in Haiti.

The Office of Internal Oversight at the United Nations commissioned this study as part of an evaluation of the UN’s strategy to address SEA through prevention, education, and remedial action.  231 Haitian individuals (229 women and 2 men) representative of the diverse backgrounds in Haiti completed extensive interviews. These citizens were identified using snowball sampling in nine of the ten geographic departments of Haiti; most were unemployed but attending school or self-employed and only three were professional sex workers. No interviews were conducted in Grand’Anse due to the time and cost limitations. Children were excluded but participants were asked to report on events that took place when they were under 18.

While all forms of SEA of civilians by peacekeepers have been a problem since the early days of the UN mission in Haiti, cases of rape have dominated the media discourse. Within Haitian culture some forms of SEA may be considered acceptable or normal in married relationship; consent is implied by being present in the relationship. The economic nature of relationships is another aspect of Haitian culture which impacts perceptions of SEA.

  • The study does not identify a ‘typical’ type of relationship or interaction with peacekeepers: one-time events, ongoing transactional relationships and dating are all cited. However, respondents within the same groups reported similar experiences. Participants reported meeting peacekeepers primarily through word-of-mouth or personal introductions, though some in rural areas also reported meeting individuals through professional contact.
  • There is no single narrative to describe factors that explain women’s engagement in transactional sex. Rural women, who were almost uniformly poor, cited economic desperation as their primary motivation, while women in urban and suburban areas often had a more complex reasoning behind their decision that may have involved material needs but also romance, social support and friendship.
  • While interviewees frequently compared transactional sexual encounters to other sexual relationships in their lives but did differentiate transactional relationships from regular sexual relationships and prostitution.
  • Interviewees expressed difficulties in negotiating the use of condoms and HIV and/or pregnancy prevention. Most said they relied on friends or traditional medicine practitioners for advice.
  • 61 interviewees complained of infrequent abuse, threats, and/ or harassment within their transactional sexual relationships. Half of the interviewees knew that sexual abuse and (threats of) violence are prohibited under Haitian law, but few knew of MINUSTAH policies.

Implications

While many women experienced transactional sex to enable access to resources and opportunities to improve their economic status, it replicates and can magnify power imbalance in male/female relationships. If regulations prohibiting SEA were followed, peacekeepers could contribute to modeling male-female relations which highlight women’s non-sexual contributions as leaders, businesswomen and heads of household. Future research should seek to explore the experience of the MINUSTAH reporting process by conducting similarly in-depth interviews with individuals and their families who have initiated or completed it.

Source

Athena R. Kolbe. (2015). ‘It’s not a gift when it comes with price’: A qualitative study of transactional sex between UN peacekeepers and Haitian citizens. Stability: International Journal of Security & Development, 4(1), 1–26.