U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed "deep concern" Tuesday after a leading children's charity said it uncovered evidence of widespread sexual abuse of children at the hands of U.N. peacekeepers and international aid workers.
The report by Save the Children UK, based on field research in southern Sudan, Ivory Coast and Haiti, describes a litany of sexual crimes against children as young as 6.
It said some children were denied food aid unless they granted sexual favors; others were forced to have sex or to take part in child pornography; many more were subjected to improper touching or kissing.
"The report shows sexual abuse has been widely underreported because children are afraid to come forward," Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children UK, told Associated Press Television News.
"A tiny proportion of peacekeepers and aid workers are abusing the children they were sent to protect. It ranges from sex for food to coerced sex. It's despicable."
At the U.N. headquarters, spokeswoman Michele Montas said Ban "is deeply concerned" by the report.
"We welcome this report. It's fair, and I think it's essentially accurate," Montas said.
Steps to prevent, investigate abuse
She noted the report states the United Nations has already undertaken steps designed to tackle the problem, from establishing conduct and discipline units in all U.N. missions to strengthening training for all categories of U.N. personnel. She said the United Nations also needs to strengthen its investigative capacity.
The study was based on research, confidential interviews and focus groups conducted last year. The charity emphasized it did not produce comprehensive statistics about the scale of abuse but did gather enough information to indicate the problem is severe.
The report said that more than half the children interviewed knew of cases of sexual abuse and that in many instances children knew of 10 or more such incidents carried out by aid workers or peacekeepers.
The Save the Children UK researchers, who met with 129 girls and 121 boys between the ages of 10 and 17, and also with a number of adults, found an "overwhelming" majority of the people interviewed would never report a case of abuse and had never heard of a case being reported.
The threat of retaliation, and the stigma attached to sex abuse, were powerful deterrents to coming forward, the report said.
Ann Buchanan, an Oxford University expert in statistical attempts to quantify rates of child abuse, said the topic is so taboo it is virtually impossible to come up with reliable numbers. But she said the new report provides a useful starting point.
"This will never be a statistical study," she said. "We'd call it a pilot work exploring the start of an issue. All the research shows kids don't make it up."
Children afraid to report abuse
Buchanan, who directs the Oxford Center for Research into Parenting and Children, said the biggest obstacle to accurate numerical studies of child sexual abuse is the reluctance of children to come forward and tell adults they have been taken advantage of.
"Sexual abuse is a hugely difficult, sensitive area and it's not something that you can usually do surveys about because kids feel terrible shame and are afraid to say what's happened to them," she said. "Given what we know about underreporting of sex abuse, I would say this report is probably true. They've gone about it as sensitively as you can."
Save the Children spokesman Dominic Nutt said U.N. peacekeepers are involved in many abuse cases because they are present throughout the world in such large numbers. But he praised the United Nations for improving its reporting and investigative procedures regarding sex abuse.
"We're not singling out the U.N. In some ways they do a good job. It's all peacekeepers and all aid workers, including Save the Children," that are involved in sexual abuses, he said.
The report says several Save the Children workers were fired for having sex with 17-year-old girls in violation of agency guidelines.
In its report, Save the Children UK makes three key recommendations: establish a way for people to report abuse locally, create an international watchdog agency this year to deal with the problem, and set up a program to deal with the underlying causes of child abuse.
Tom Cargill, Africa program manager at the London think tank Chatham House, said there is no "magic bullet" that can solve the problem quickly.
"The governance of U.N. missions has always been a problem because soldiers from individual states are only beholden to those states," he said. "So it's difficult for the U.N. to pursue charges and difficult for the U.N. to investigate them."