Marie* was 14 years old and enrolled in a Christian school when she met and became involved with Miguel, a Brazilian soldier working in Haiti as a UN peacekeeper. When she told him that she was pregnant with his baby, Miguel said he would help her with the child. But instead, he returned to Brazil. Marie wrote to him on Facebook but he never responded.
After learning that she was pregnant, Marie’s father forced her to leave the family home and she went to live with her sister. Her child is now four and Marie has yet to receive any support from the Brazilian military, an NGO, the UN or the Haitian state. Marie provides what she can for her son but she cannot afford to send him to school. She works for an hourly wage of 25 gourde (around 26 US cents or 20 UK pence) so that she and her son can eat. But she needs help with housing and paying for school fees.
Sadly, Marie’s experience is far from unique. In the summer of 2017, our research team interviewed approximately 2,500 Haitians about the experiences of local women and girls living in communities that host peace support operations. Of those, 265 told stories that featured children fathered by UN personnel. That 10% of those interviewed mentioned such children highlights just how common such stories really are.
The narratives reveal how girls as young as 11 were sexually abused and impregnated by peacekeepers and then, as one man put it, “left in misery” to raise their children alone, often because the fathers are repatriated once the pregnancy becomes known. Mothers such as Marie are then left to raise the children in settings of extreme poverty and disadvantage, with most receiving no assistance.
The UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) – the longest running mission by the organisation in the country (2004-2017) – was originally mandated to assist local Haitian institutions in a context of political instability and organised crime. Its mandate was then extended due to natural disasters, most notably an earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, both of which added to the volatility of the political situation in the country. After 13 years of operation, MINUSTAH closed in October 2017, transitioning to the smaller UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH).
MINUSTAH is one of the most controversial UN missions ever. It has been the focus of extensive allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. A shocking number of uniformed and non-uniformed peacekeeping personnel have been linked to human rights abuses including sexual exploitation, rape, and even unlawful deaths. (For the purposes of this article, we use MINUSTAH personnel, agents, and peacekeepers interchangeably to refer to uniformed and non-uniformed foreign staff associated with MINUSTAH.)
With regard to public health, it is undisputed, and now officially recognised by the UN, that peacekeepers also inadvertently introduced cholera to Haiti. More than 800,000 Haitians are known to have sought medical attention for cholera and at least 10,000 died from the disease.
Various media organisations have reported that minors were offered food and small amounts of cash to have sex with UN personnel, and MINUSTAH was linked to a sex ring that operated in Haiti with seeming impunity: allegedly, at least 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers exploited nine children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. As a result of this story, reported by the Associated Press in 2017, MINUSTAH became a classic example of lack of appropriate response to allegations of sexual abuse. In the wake of this report, 114 peacekeepers were returned to Sri Lanka, but none were ever prosecuted or charged after repatriation.
Extensive research has demonstrated that children born of war are often raised in single-parent families in precarious economic post-conflict settings. The association with the (absent) foreign father, along with birth out of wedlock, often result in stigma and discrimination for the children.
Yet little is known about the impact of being a mixed-race child fathered by peacekeepers. Even less is known about the experiences of the so-called “Petit MINUSTAH”, or Haitian-born children of foreign UN peacekeepers. This is one of the reasons we set out to bring to light the stories of those affected by the UN mission.
We collected stories by asking participants to tell us what it’s like to be a woman or girl living in a community that hosts a peacekeeping mission. We audio-recorded the resulting stories, and then participants interpreted their experiences by responding to a series of pre-defined questions. This allowed us to better understand the circumstances and consequences of their interactions with peacekeepers.
Participants could share any story they chose, about anyone, and were not prompted in any way to talk about sexual abuse or exploitation. Narratives were captured by trained Haitian research assistants in the communities surrounding ten UN bases in Haiti in the summer of 2017. About 2,500 Haitians were asked about the experiences of local women and girls living in communities that host peace support operations. A variety of positive and negative experiences were captured, but 265 (10%) of all stories were about peacekeeper-fathered children. This is particularly noteworthy since the survey did not ask about sexual relations with peacekeepers or about children conceived through such relations.
This would suggest not only that sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeeping personnel is not rare, but also, as one Port-Salut research participant said in her own words: “There are many young women who have children with the MINUSTAH.” This was echoed by a man in Saint Marc who told us: “MINUSTAH gave us many children without fathers.”