Proactive and reactive responses to pregnancies resulting from sexual exploitation and abuse: an ecological model based on Haitian survivors’ experiences

Luissa Vahedi (Department of Public Health Sciences, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada and The Brown School, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, USA)
Sabine Lee (Department of History, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK)
Susan A. Bartels (Department of Public Health Sciences, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada and Department of Emergency Medicine, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada)

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Article publication date: 7 October 2021

Issue publication date: 2 February 2022

688

Abstract

Purpose

This paper aims to analyze the lived experience of seeking justice and reparations related to conceiving a peacekeeper-fathered child.

Design/methodology/approach

Based on 18 semi-structured qualitative interviews conducted across Haiti in 2017, the authors mapped the experiences of Haitian mothers of peacekeeper-fathered children onto the ecological framework, proposing prevention/response strategies at the micro, meso and macro levels.

Findings

The findings mainly focus on reporting and access to support. Reporting was sometimes discouraged by the peacekeeper fathers due to the fear of being reprimanded. Among women who did report, some were told that nothing could be done, as the peacekeeper returned to his home country. Disclosure fatigue was common among participants who formally reported their pregnancies/peacekeeper-fathered children, particularly when promises of employment or child support failed to materialize. Overall, there was widespread distrust and disillusionment with the UN’s reporting and support system.

Originality/value

To improve the UN’s sexual abuse and exploitation prevention/response system at the micro level, the authors propose addressing personal knowledge/attitudes/beliefs through scenario-based and contextually relevant peacekeeper training and addressing the sexual/reproductive health needs of women and girls in proximity to peacekeeping bases. At the meso level, the UN should improve trust in reporting. Efforts to do so should include mandatory third-party deoxyribonucleic acid testing and banking, streamlined reporting mechanisms and removing the practice of automatically repatriating implicated peacekeepers. At the macro level, the authors recommend investments to improve educational and economic opportunities for women and girls, as well as revamping policies that contribute to impunity and absolve peacekeepers and troop-contributing countries of their responsibilities to provide child support.

Keywords

Citation

Vahedi, L., Lee, S. and A. Bartels, S. (2022), "Proactive and reactive responses to pregnancies resulting from sexual exploitation and abuse: an ecological model based on Haitian survivors’ experiences", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 26-42. https://doi.org/10.1108/JACPR-03-2021-0584

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Luissa Vahedi, Sabine Lee and Susan A. Bartels.

License

Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


Contextual background

Since becoming the first Black-led republic to gain independence from French colonial rule, Haiti has encountered an uninterrupted international presence, brutal dictatorships and intrastate violence (Faedi, 2008). Following the resignation and exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February of 2004, the UN sanctioned the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), after a succession of previously deployed peacekeeping operations (PO) in Haiti (United Nations Peacekeeping, 2016). MINUSTAH was operational for 13 consecutive years, making it the longest PO in Haiti to date. The mission’s initial purpose was to complement the state by protecting civilians from armed gangs (dos Santos Parra, 2019). However, within the context of the 2010 earthquake, distrust of foreign intervention and the absence of State governance and legitimate public services, MINUSTAH could not fill the vacuum of power following the neutralization of gangs/organized crime (Rivera, 2018).

In fact, the erosion of national public services began in the late 1980s through conditional lending agreements and structural adjustment programs, favored by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (Mullings et al., 2010). Damages ensued by the earthquake in January 2010 and MINUSTAH’s introduction of cholera in October 2010 (Frerichs et al., 2012) resulted in the propagation of a “humanitarian economy.” Post-earthquake, a wave of international relief organizations/actors culminated in the displacement of national/regional actors involved in public service and governance (Pierre-Louis, 2011). Moreover, natural disasters incubated power differentials that underscored peacekeeper and humanitarian aid worker-perpetrated sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA) and transactional sex (Vahedi et al., 2019; Luetke et al., 2020).

Since 2007, 120 formal reports of SEA against MINUSTAH peacekeepers have been recorded (United Nations, 2021). Just over a 10-year period (2010–2021) and across POs, 348 paternity claims involving peacekeepers have been reported to the UN, 37 of which occurred during MINUSTAH (United Nations, 2021). The prevalence of SEA and resultant children is likely greater because data prior to 2007 and 2010 are not publicly available, not all mothers seek to formally establish paternity and not all victims formally report sexual violence. In theory, the UN maintains a zero-tolerance for SEA (United Nations Secretariat, 2003) and grants complainants and victims – including resultant children – assistance in accordance with their needs (United Nations, 2008a). The UN Trust Fund Program for SEA survivors was first implemented in 2017 and consists of psychosocial, educational and vocational programs financed by member states and supplemented by withheld payments from implicated peacekeepers. While under consideration, Trust Fund programs have yet to be implemented in Haiti (Connors, 2019; Conduct and Discipline Service, 2020).

The UN asserts that while it supports victims of SEA and their children, it holds no legal liability (United Nations, 2008a). Simić and O’Brien (2014) critically analyze the UN’s position with respect to SEA victims and their children, describing the position as limited given it exclusively addresses children found to be born from SEA. The UN does not acknowledge paternity claims that cannot be substantiated as SEA or children fathered through consensual relations (Simić and O’Brien, 2014).

The culture of perceived impunity is not conducive to reporting and preventing SEA (Freedman, 2014; Connors, 2019). The functional immunity of peacekeepers limits the UN’s ability to force the troop contributing country’s (TCC) compliance with the prosecution of peacekeepers who commit SEA and father children in host countries (Freedman, 2018). Thus, the perception among the host community and peacekeeping personnel is that following SEA and the birth of a peacekeeper-fathered child, the peacekeeper will be repatriated to the TCC and absolved of paternal responsibility because the TCC will not move forward with legal proceedings. In fact, this is the reality for many peacekeepers who reside in TCC that are unwilling or unable to prosecute the peacekeeper (Defeis, 2008). However, securing long-term material support beyond the programs provided by the UN Trust Fund depends on attaining legally enforced paternity support.

To better address peacekeeper-fathered children, SEA-related programs and policies must aim to be both proactive (focused on preventing SEA and related pregnancies by addressing root causes) and reactive (appropriately responsive to related harms). Impunity is the underlying driving force that normalizes SEA within PO and disincentivizes reporting. While Trust Fund programs operate at the individual level, wider environmental/contextual changes have the potential to prevent and better respond to SEA and related pregnancies.

Ecological framework

Ecological frameworks illustrate that individual behaviors are nested in communities and socio-political institutions (McLeroy et al., 1988; Golden and Earp, 2012). The micro, intrapersonal level is concerned with the knowledge, perceptions and skills of individuals. The meso level focuses on interpersonal and institutional-level social relationships and interactions. Finally, public policies and laws are situated at the macro-level (Golden and Earp, 2012). Ecological frameworks have been applied to better understand multi-level risk factors for violence against women and girls by highlighting interactions between individuals, groups and the policy environment (CDC, 2020; Heise, 1998). For example, Heise’s seminal ecological analysis exemplified the interplay between personal, situational and sociocultural risk factors of intimate partner violence perpetrated by men (Heise, 1998).

Purpose

We used the ecological framework as a heuristic tool to better understand the multi-layered and interlinked experiences of Haitian women and girls as they navigated the UN’s SEA prevention/response system. We mapped the lived experiences related to seeking justice/reparations onto the micro (individual), meso (interpersonal/institutional) and macro (policy/law) levels. The multi-layered experiences of the Haitian women in our sample inform our proposal for a multi-level prevention/response program that addresses SEA-related pregnancies.

In a previous analysis of the same data set, we explored lived experiences in relation to the contextual factors and social forces that increase the risk of experiencing SEA and conceiving a child with a peacekeeper, classified sexual interactions leading to the birth of the child and developed an empirical conceptualization of consent (Vahedi et al., 2019). Furthermore, in a second publication, we also investigated the lived experiences of raising peacekeeper-fathered children; namely, the experiences related to the absent father, single motherhood, intergenerational cycles of poverty and the mothers’ demonstrated resilience (Vahedi et al., 2020). Following from there, the present analysis highlights experiences related to justice/reparations.

Methods

The 18 in-depth interviews on which the analysis is based were conducted between October and December 2017 with women in Haiti who were raising peacekeeper-fathered children. This qualitative research followed a larger mixed-methods study conducted from June to August 2017 (King et al., 2020; Lee and Bartels, 2020; Vahedi et al., 2021a, 2021b).

The current analysis was conducted in partnership with Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim (KOFAVIV): a Haitian grassroots community-based organization dedicated to providing services and support to survivors of sexual violence (KOFAVIV, 2008) and Bureau des Avocates Internationaux (BAI): Haitian and US human rights advocates and lawyers representing Haitian SEA survivors (Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, 2020a). With KOFAVIV team members, we developed a semi-structured interview guide, conducted research training, designed a recruitment strategy and implemented the research. In doing so KOFAVIV’s contextual knowledge was particularly important for identifying recruitment sites and guiding the work in a culturally sensitive way that foregrounded the needs of participants alongside the research objectives. The interviews were conducted by five Haitian female research assistants working for KOFAVIV who had previous experience supporting survivors of sexual violence. All research assistants completed a four-day training led by the third author, which focused on, namely, identifying and approaching research participants, obtaining informed consent, semi-structured interviewing, audio recording interviews, maintaining the confidentiality and providing psychological support and referral for services when needed.

Study recruitment was linked to the earlier study (Lee and Bartels, 2020) in that female participants who had shared a first-person narrative about having a child fathered by a MINUSTAH peacekeeper and who had agreed to a follow-up interview, were invited by the KOFAVIV research assistants to participate in the current qualitative study. Starting with these initial participants, other women who were also raising peacekeeper-fathered children were recruited using snowball sampling. Interviews were conducted with women above the age of 16 in Port-au-Prince, Hinche, Leogane, Port-Salut, Port-du-Paix, Cap Haitien, Fort Liberté and Saint Marc. Drafted in English, the interview guide was translated to Haitian Kreyòl and then independently back translated to English. Research assistants conducted the interviews in Haitian Kreyòl in private settings. Each participant completed a single interview (average length of 23 min). Recordings were transcribed and professionally translated from Kreyòl to English.

All participants provided verbal informed consent after having had the opportunity to ask questions. As a token of appreciation for participation, mobile phone credit (∼US$1) was offered and light refreshments were made available during the interview. For participants who required transport, associated costs were also reimbursed (∼US$1 on local buses). The Queen’s University Health Sciences and Affiliated Teaching Hospitals Research Ethics Board approved the study (protocol number #6021205). Haitian partner organizations, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and KOFAVIV advised prior to data collection that there are no national legislative requirements or regulations for local research ethics review in Haiti (Department of Health and Human Services, 2020; Ministère de la Santé Publique, 2020). The present methods are also fully described in our earlier publications (Vahedi et al., 2019, 2020).

To capture lived experiences, phenomenology guided data analysis and reduction (Moustakas, 1994), which was led by the first author who iteratively examined each of the 18 transcripts for meaningful units and organized them using NVIVO 12.2.0. Transcripts were read a total of three times to further refine the data into specific units of meaning (codes), each representing a distinct aspect of obtaining justice/reparations. The individual codes were thematically organized by level of the ecological framework, namely, micro, meso and macro. To enhance rigor, the coding researcher consulted with the third author to discuss the codes and emerging ecological themes. Collectively, the team then critically assessed whether the codes represented distinct meanings that were contextually accurate. Members of KOFAVIV and BAI were consulted to identify coding inconsistencies, incorporate contextual nuance and identify gaps in the researchers’ knowledge base. Engagement in research group meetings established a reflexive practice that focused on critical self-reflection. In May of 2019, the first and second authors traveled to Haiti to contextualize the qualitative findings through facilitated focus group discussions with KOFAVIV and BAI team members.

Results

Study sample

Of the 18 participants, 17 were biological mothers of peacekeeper-fathered children and one was a maternal grandmother: the child’s primary caregiver. While not all participants reported the nationality of the peacekeeper fathers, the following nationalities were noted: Japanese, Uruguayan (n = 2), Malagasy and Brazilian. At the time interviews were conducted in 2017, the participants’ ages ranged from 20–42. Participants ranged in age from 14–29 years old at the point in time when the SEA occurred. During the interviews in 2017, the children ranged in age from eight months to 12 years. While all participants had one peacekeeper-fathered child, the average number of children overall was two, with a maximum number of four. At the time of the interview, participants worked as sex workers, street vendors, teachers, domestic maids or factory workers. The maternal grandmother participant reported her daughter had emigrated to Chile for employment. Unemployed participants relied on their families to meet their basic needs. Finally, one-third of participants identified the peacekeeper father by name or nationality.

Major themes

Micro-level: Sexual abuse and exploitation-related pregnancies and sexual/reproductive health care

This micro level encompasses participants’ knowledge, experiences, attitudes and beliefs related to SEA and the related pregnancy. Specifically, participants described gaps in knowledge and access pertaining to sexual/reproductive health care that were leveraged by peacekeepers who engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse. Additionally, reproductive health care also involved access to prenatal, natal and postnatal care; some participants accessed maternity care, whereas other participants could not afford it. For example, one respondent described being able to access some maternity care following the 2010 earthquake within the camp setting she was living in:

I was pregnant with the child during the [period after] the earthquake. There was a hospital in the camp, that’s where I did all my follow-ups. They used to help us and after that for my delivery I went to a hospital called [x] (Tabarre 2, Brazilian Peacekeeper Father).

Abortion was mentioned by only two participants and in both cases was mentioned in relation to the peacekeeper father. For instance, when asked how the peacekeeper father reacted to the news of the pregnancy, one participant responded:

He didn’t react badly– on the contrary, he was happy– he said that he already had 2 boys, he was going to have a girl and he was very happy about that. I, myself, I thought of having an abortion [and] he told me not to (Port Salut 4).

Another respondent described the peacekeeper offering to pay for an abortion: he was the one telling me that he would give me money to go have an abortion – he said he would give me the money to pay for an abortion (Saint Marc 2).

Although most participants did not overtly mention contraception or sexual agency, they described being unprepared for the consequences that followed transactional sex and SEA, including conception, birth and socioeconomic disadvantage. Such sentiments were often associated with the early onset of the SEA. For example, one participant stated:

I was too young to give birth to her. The reason why I had her so young was because I did not understand how things were. I did not have someone to advise me not to be involved in that situation […] I was immature. I did not think enough about that […] If I had some advice from other people to help me that would not have happened (Port de Paix).

Another participant echoed those sentiments and clearly identified that she was a minor when the SEA and statutory sexual assault occurred:

I was pregnant at 16, I didn’t understand life [back then], I understand life now […] Had I thought beforehand, I would never have made these mistakes. I would not have had a child with a MINUSTAH [peacekeeper] and everything else would not have happened. I would simply advise the other young people to protect themselves, take precautions– they shouldn’t open up too quickly to [people] who come from some other places, they need to really think about it first, and take their time […] Like myself, if I had thought about it beforehand, I would not have made this mistake (Port Salut 2, Uruguayan peacekeeper father).

Experiencing statutory sexual assault was also related to the more extreme adversity and poverty during pregnancy and child rearing. For example, the same participant went on to further contrast her young age with older women in the community who were also mothers to peacekeepers:

There are several of us. Yes, there are five of us, and then there are people in other areas. The other ladies are not minors. They are more mature than I am. Also, I am not in the same [situation as] the other ladies because some of them teach in schools, some of them are teachers (Port Salut 2, Uruguayan peacekeeper father).

Moreover, participants also mentioned parental and familial transfers of knowledge pertaining to healthy sexual relationships, particularly with respect to sexual relations with foreign men. For example, when asked what advise she would transfer to Haitian girls, one participant stated:

To protect themselves. And to the parents as well, when they saw the foreigners arrived in the country, they should not let their teenagers get involved, or get close to anyone they do not know anything about (Fort Liberte 2).

Meso-level: Reporting to the local United Nations stabilization mission in Haiti base

The meso-level is comprising interpersonal interactions with MINUSTAH base employees, who acted as gatekeepers for support and facilitated deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing to establish paternity. Interactions between the participants and the MINUSTAH base personnel were in some cases influenced by the peacekeeper father.

Paternity testing and interactions with TCC representatives were often fraught with challenges. For instance, in some cases, participants were notified of a positive DNA test but no further actions were taken in terms of facilitating child support payments or providing support:

These people have the means, they choose not to do anything for these kids. And they knew that they made us go all the way to Port-au-Prince to do DNA testing, at the time there was a high-level Uruguayan officer who came to do the testing. Every time they say there is money to compensate us […] nothing, still nothing ever came through […] Since 2014, we haven’t heard anything, except they called us on the phone to tell us that the result is positive (Port Salut 2, Uruguayan peacekeeper father).

Interactions with personnel working at local UN bases, such as contingent leaders, were perceived as disadvantageous because they caused the peacekeeper’s repatriation. For example, when reflecting on why she refused information requests from the local MINUSTAH base, one participant stated: I did not want them to send him away, so I said no (Saint Marc).

Similarly, another participant expressed her conviction that revealing the pregnancy resulted in the peacekeeper’s repatriation:

I don’t who in the neighborhood told his chief that he had a pregnant woman, they put him in jail inside the base. After one month he spent in there without ever going outside, they brought him to my home to tell me that he was about to leave to go back to his home country (Port Salut 2, Uruguayan peacekeeper father).

In some cases, to evade being reprimanded the peacekeeper discouraged reporting the pregnancy or child to the local MINUSTAH base. Accordingly, the peacekeeper held a unique position of power: he was a perpetrator of SEA but also the father of the child and a potential provider. Such a position could be leveraged for self-preservation within the context of power differentials due to poverty and age. Some participants expressed a desire to protect the peacekeeper father from repatriation/service dismissal by limiting contact with contingent leaders:

He told me not to tell his supervisor, so they don’t arrest him and put him in jail. And that if I were to tell his supervisor, he would bring the issue to the MINUSTAH’s main office, they would put him in jail and he won’t be able to take care of me or my baby […] So, I was careful, I didn’t tell his supervisor. (Saint Marc 3, Malagasy peacekeeper father)

While some women intentionally avoided talking to UN personnel, others did communicate with base staff:

They told me to go to the MINUSATH base. Each time I went there, they welcomed me. They asked for a lot of information about him, and then they figured out with whom I was having sex. But they always said to me that there is not much they can do for me because he was already gone. (Port de Paix)

However, communication with the local base staff was not concomitant with action:

They are aware of the child, they know[…] there was a lady in the office who called me asking me for my date of birth, the date of birth of the child, she said there was aid available, they would reach out to us– since then until today nothing happened (Port Salut 3, Uruguayan peacekeeper father).

Some women were offered employment by the UN, but opportunities never materialized:

They called me to fill out some applications, so I could get a job there. The people that were already working inside planned with other corrupted ones to hire their own people instead. I was never able to get the job. They called me in about three times, to fill out forms for more job applications. But it never worked out; until the MINUSTAH left the community, I did not benefit anything from them. (Port de Paix)

Another participant echoed similar sentiments and brought attention to disclosure fatigue:

The kind of service that myself and the other mothers need is for MINUSTAH to take care of the children, to be responsible for them […] MINUSTAH is always talking, talking, and talking […] interviewing the women […] They need to know the women, how did the women become pregnant with a MINUSTAH baby. When they met with them, they talked about everything; about how did they end up having a relationship with a MINUSTAH […] but nothing never happened. At a certain point, this person will get discouraged. (Port Salut)

Macro-level: Navigating legal and economic systems to provide for the child

The macro-level refers to the legal and policy environment. Participants shared sentiments related to international legal proceedings for child support and reflected on what policies/programs would be helpful. Many participants noted that the peacekeeper’s abandonment was legally and morally reprehensible. The predominant view was that peacekeeper’s foreign citizenship obscured accountability vis-à-vis paternal support in Haiti:

This is a child of a foreign citizen and if he was the child of a Haitian, the Haitian [man] would have taken care of his child. You never get a foreign citizen coming to you to say that this child is a child of a foreign citizen let's do something to help the mom, to support the mom, pay for school tuition, help the moms with other expenses, all they can do is talking, and talking […] Your country is supposed to know that you have a child with a woman in another country and your country needs to take care of that. It is supposed to take care of the child all the time -take care of you as well. (Port Salut)

Moreover, participants noted that their children deserved the same access to resources and opportunities as children from the TCC:

So, if my child is his as well […] my child is not different from any other child. This child needs to be treated the same way he treats the child he has in his country. (Port Salut 3. Uruguayan peacekeeper father)

Participants noted they were largely unaware of UN programs for SEA survivors. For example, one participant stated she did not know where to access support:

I could have gone somewhere but I didn't know where to go to let them know about my issues, my financial situation and what I need financially (Tabarre 2, Brazilian peacekeeper father).

In other cases, participants were aware of programs for SEA survivors but did not have sufficient trust in such programs:

Well, I used to hear about that, but I never really focused on the idea, or try it. As you may know how things are in this country, I thought it was just a vague project that they started but would not end well for us. I thought it was just a joke, but not something that would actually help most women who gave birth to children with MINUSTAH personnel (Tabarre).

Another participant echoed these sentiments:

Everyone you talk to tells you that there is [a program]. In my view, I think there isn’t because I haven’t found it. If there was one, it would have reached out to [me] but if I can’t find it that means it’s not there [doesn’t exist] (Port Salut 3, Uruguayan peacekeeper father)

The respondents also shared remarks of their employment prospects. By referencing Haiti’s precarious geopolitical position and labor market, the participants alluded to the broader Women, Peace and Security Agenda and the sustainable development goals and their focus on improving the economic conditions of women in humanitarian settings:

We would ask that the country reaches a level of development, so everyone, all women could find an activity to do to make a living […] An activity to get out of our financial situation, so you can wake up in the morning and either do this or that option (Fort Liberté, Japanese peacekeeper father).

The participants also spoke of the need for sustainable policies/programs that support the socio-economic progression of the mother and child:

None of us have money to provide for our children, we are all in the same boat. We need financial support to help raise the children as they are already born and live with us […] When we think of all those kids growing up without a father, you do not know what they will become in the future […]The same way we started this today, let us keep it going to the benefit of us all women with children without fathers. According to me, I think it would have been a good initiative (Tabarre 1)

Discussion

Drawing on the perspectives of Haitian women raising peacekeeper-fathered children, we explored the phenomenon of seeking justice/reparations. We mapped participants’ lived experiences onto the micro, meso and macro levels of the ecological framework. In doing so, we identified multiple levels of action for SEA-related prevention (proactive policy options) and response (reactive policy options). As reflected by previous scholarship (Defeis, 2008; Freedman, 2014, 2018; Connors, 2019), Haitian women raising children fathered by peacekeepers navigated a complex SEA system involving the UN, TCC and the host country.

The lived experience of seeking justice and reparations for Haitian SEA survivors raising peacekeeper-fathered children is characterized by personal knowledge pertaining to sexual/reproductive health and healthy relationships (micro-level), interactions with MINUSTAH staff related to reporting and DNA testing (meso-level), as well as the peacekeepers’ immunity from host country prosecution and the insufficient implementation of the Women Peace and Security Agenda and the sustainable development goals to support the economic progression of women and girls (macro-level).

At the individual micro level, participants retrospectively discussed their personal attitudes, experiences, perceptions and beliefs of SEA and related pregnancies. For instance, engaging in sexual relations with peacekeepers during adolescence meant SEA was experienced within the context of inadequate personal knowledge and access to sexual/reproductive health (access to contraception, abortion, risk of pregnancy/sexually transmitted infections) and healthy relationships (signs of sexual coercion and disproportionate power and control). Consequently, peacekeepers leverage such age-related lack of knowledge and access to sexual/reproductive health to engage in unprotected sexual intercourse and commit SEA, including statutory sexual assault (Vahedi et al., 2019).

At the intrapersonal meso level, the participants described interactions with MINUSTAH personnel, including contingent leaders who were informed of the pregnancy and SEA, as well as representatives from the TCC who conducted the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) paternity tests. Finally, at the macro socio-political level, participants reflected on the difficulties inherent in trying to obtain paternal financial support and access UN programs. Compared to Haitian men, the peacekeepers’ foreign citizenship was described as shielding the fathers from supporting the mother and child in Haiti, thereby alluding to peacekeepers’ impunity. Participants also expressed the need for programs to support the employment and livelihoods of Haitian women/girls so they could meet the needs of their children.

Lived experiences of seeking justice and reparations were influenced by the participants’ age at the point of experiencing SEA and by the peacekeeper father willfully discouraging the reporting of sexual misconduct and pregnancy to the UN. The age at which women/girls experienced SEA may be conceptualized as a proxy for knowledge, skills and access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, which, in turn, is leveraged by sexually coercive peacekeepers and increases the risk of conceiving a peacekeeper-fathered child. Furthermore, in some cases, the peacekeeper father influenced the decision of whether the participants reported the SEA and pregnancy to MINUSTAH.

Multi-level approach to preventing and responding to sexual abuse and exploitation-related pregnancies

Preventing and responding to SEA and the birth of peacekeeper-fathered children can be addressed at multiple levels, as outlined by the ecological framework. Building on our qualitative findings described above, in Figure 1, we present a multi-level framework for preventing/responding to SEA-related pregnancies that is intended to build upon Resolution 62/214: United Nations Comprehensive Strategy on Assistance and Support to Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by United Nations Staff and Related Personnel (United Nations, 2008a) and the UN Trust Fund for victims of SEA (United Nations, 2019). The policy framework presented responds to the lived experiences and difficulties in attaining justice and reparations among Haitian mothers raising peacekeeper-fathered children by incorporating proactive/preventative and reactive/harm mitigation policy options. In doing so, the framework is grounded in the lived realities of Haitian women and girls raising peacekeeper-fathered children. While at the time of writing, there is no currently active PO in Haiti, the framework presented is applicable SEA-related pregnancies more broadly; particularly in settings where the UN Trust Fund is currently implemented.

Micro level: Targeting personal knowledge, experiences attitudes and beliefs

The survival and material needs of Haitian women and girls are risk factors for transactional sex with peacekeepers (Vahedi et al., 2019; King et al., 2020). The greatest risk of conceiving a peacekeeper-fathered child lies at the intersection of power imbalances rooted in an adverse socio-economic context and adolescent girls’ lower sexual agency with respect to accessing sexual/reproductive health services/information. Given the participants spoke of sexual/reproductive health knowledge gaps and the early onset of sexual relations with peacekeepers, one actionable target at the micro-level is to improve access to sexual/reproductive health services/information among adolescent girls living in proximity to peacekeeping bases. This approach will not prevent SEA but may mitigate harms, including the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, as well as reduce the risk of adverse birth outcomes, if the mother decides to keep the pregnancy. Other research has highlighted the lack of contraceptive use within transactional sexual relationships between UN peacekeepers and Haitian women due to lack of negotiation power, confidence and information on birth control/condom use; beliefs that the use of condoms equated to not respecting the peacekeeper and less pleasurable sex for male partners; and desires to conceive children with the peacekeeper for upward social mobility (Kolbe, 2015). Accordingly, within the context of power differentials between peacekeepers and the host community, comprehensive sexual/reproductive health programs should be developed and implemented by local Haitian feminist organizations.

More important though, from a prevention perspective, is SEA training delivered to peacekeepers. Reiterating that male peacekeepers should not engage in sexual interactions with beneficiaries of assistance, exemplified through existing initiatives such as the no excuses card (United Nations Peacekeeping, 2017), is of limited utility because information is not synonymous with behavior change. Attention should be given to the nuanced environment in which SEA is perpetrated and power and coercion are leveraged through case-based behavior-change training when peacekeepers arrive in the host country (Westendorf, 2020). The UN has also advocated for peacekeeper SEA training; however, pre-deployment awareness training is referenced in relation to the TCC (United Nations, 2005, 2008b, 2012). Given the challenges present in ensuring TCCs comply with prosecuting peacekeepers for crimes committed in the host country and that TCCs may not have adequate policies and laws governing gender equality or sexualized violence (Crawford et al., 2015), we question whether the TCC should be the sole entity governing peacekeeper SEA training. We advocate for in-mission scenario-based contextual training that is grounded in the realities and complexities of the host community, to be delivered and developed in collaboration with host county personnel and local Feminist organizations.

For example, in Haiti, earthquake-related losses, structural violence perpetrated through organized crime and international actors shape the phenomenon of transactional sex with peacekeepers (Pierre-Louis, 2011; Mary Fran and Roslyn, 2013; Logie, 2017). Indeed, peacekeepers may leverage the context of abject poverty and the associated lack of knowledge pertaining to healthy relationships and sexual/reproductive health to engage not only in SEA but also unprotected sexual intercourse – a risk factor for pregnancy.

While peacekeepers may recognize that sexual interactions with beneficiaries of assistance are prohibited, this may not alter behavior within a context of perceived impunity, as well as minimal oversight and supervision. Abuses of power, such as SEA, do not always manifest in overt ways, such as the sexual trafficking of minors or aggravated sexual assault (although such cases have been documented) (The Independent, 2017; Westendorf and Searle, 2017). Scenario-based behavior change training that is grounded in the lived experiences of SEA survivors can reveal insidious abuses of power, coercive behavior and assumptions about women/girls of the host community that underlies SEA perpetration and foster a culture of permissibility.

Meso-level: Response of local base after reporting sexual abuse and exploitation-related pregnancy

In our data, staff at the local MINUSTAH base were the primary point of contact for reporting SEA-related pregnancies and peacekeeper-fathered children, as well as attaining formal justice/reparations. As illustrated by the participants who participated in DNA testing, paternity analysis conducted by the TCC represents a conflict of interest: the TCC typically prioritizes its own interests over those of the SEA survivor and child. Therefore, one point of action is to mandate that DNA paternity testing be performed by a third party, instead of the TCC and that a pre-deployment DNA bank be a necessary requirement.

Such a revised protocol could expedite the notification of a positive result, streamline access to trust fund programming for the mother and/or child and more immediately provide paternity confirmation to secure child support. Streamlining access to support can be achieved by connecting mothers of peacekeeper-fathered children to Trust Fund programs immediately after positive paternity has been established. In fact, the UN has been criticized by Bureau des Advocats Internationaux – the legal firm representing the paternity claims of Haitian SEA survivors with children – for failing to promptly provide the DNA evidence needed to advance the litigation of the paternity claims (Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, 2018, 2019, 2020b; Office of Victim’s Rights Advocate, 2020).

Second, the benefits of reporting SEA-related pregnancies must outweigh the perceived advantages of concealing them. This could be achieved by directly linking SEA survivors to Trust Fund programming following the reported disclosures of SEA-related pregnancies. Thus, the trajectory from initial disclosure to obtaining support should be streamlined such that SEA survivors with peacekeeper-fathered children do not have to retell their lived experiences to various actors.

Some participants explained that they prioritized keeping the peacekeeper father in Haiti as a means of ensuring paternal support. In such cases, participants believed that reporting the pregnancy would lead to the repatriation of the peacekeeper, resulting in a spiral of adversity: single motherhood, financial insecurity and fatherlessness (Vahedi et al., 2020). Thus, reporting was perceived to be at odds with the desire to keep the peacekeeper father in Haiti, so that he may assume the role of provider. In these cases, the potential of the peacekeeper father to provide material support was prioritized over the possible support that could be obtained through formal reporting (Vahedi et al., 2021a). The practice of repatriation magnifies the mothers’ difficulties and disincentivizes reporting (Lee and Bartels, 2020). While in the case of paternity allegations, it may not be feasible to demand that the implicated peacekeeper must remain in the host country indefinitely, the peacekeeper could be required to remain in the host country while criminal SEA investigations are in place, paternity is being established and a ruling is determined.

The decision to forego reporting occurs within the context of power differentials between the peacekeeper father and the mother, on account of not only poverty but also age. Given that motherhood sometimes occurred during adolescence, the interplay between age and poverty served to heighten power differentials and increase dependency on the peacekeeper father, thus reducing the desire to formally report the pregnancy and SEA.

In fact, some participants viewed interactions with MINUSTAH staff as futile and experienced subsequent disclosure fatigue. Given no cases of sustained paternity support for peacekeeper-fathered children exist in Haiti, it is unlikely that Haitian women/girls will prioritize reporting. Trust Fund programs only provide short-term assistance and favorable child support judgments will require enforcement in the TCC. Thus, to restore confidence in the UN’s SEA policies/programs significant strides toward streamlining reporting mechanisms and reducing the length of time between disclosure and material support must be made.

Macro-level: Securing long-term financial needs

A sustained culture of legal impunity is a key risk factor for the continued perpetration of SEA, abandonment of peacekeeper-fathered children and under-reporting. As mentioned by the participants in our sample, that foreign peacekeepers can father children while deployed and be absolved of responsibility in the host country by returning to the TCC reinforces the intergenerational cycles of poverty, trauma and adversity for the SEA survivor and peacekeeper-fathered child (Lee and Bartels, 2020). Addressing the culture of impunity involves reconceptualizing the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with respect to peacekeeper-fathered children (Reiz and O’Lear, 2016). Participants in our sample drew attention to the nuanced ways in which criminal immunity from host country prosecution due to the MoU and SOFA is interpreted and experienced by mothers of peacekeeper-fathered children. Namely, participants felt there was no accountability and responsibility from the TCC and linked this to not being able to meet their child’s needs. For example, BAI has advocated for the UN to “certify the non-applicability of functional immunity directly to Haitian courts” (Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, 2020b, p. 1; The New Humanitarian, 2021).

Socio-economic progression of women and girls

Finally, securing sustainable employment and income was identified as a major priority among our participants. The economic and political integration of women implicates the broader Women, Peace and Security Agenda (United Nations Women, 2019) and the sustainable development goals (United Nations, 2015). Essential to building a sustainable system of SEA prevention/response is integrating survivors of SEA who are raising children and women/girls more broadly into the high-skilled workforce, as well as incorporating their lived experiences within political decision-making. Such an approach could also address the negative gendered effects of peacekeeping economies, wherein the influx of peacekeepers magnifies low-skilled service industries of domestic labor, waitressing and sex work, which magnify power differentials and increase risk of SEA (Edu-Afful and Aning, 2015).

Limitations

This work has some limitations. We may not have reached saturation in our sample of 18 participants. For example, we speculate that Haitian women who were receiving informal support from the peacekeeper father may have been less likely to participate in our study. Due to the length of the interview (23 min on average), the experiences of the participants may not have been fully explained. A variety of factors contributed to the average interview length, including childcare responsibilities, leaving paid work to participate, interview fatigue and lack of comprehensive probing by the research assistants. In the translation between English and Kreyòl, subtleties may have been lost. Moreover, the interviews in late 2017 coincided with the early phases of the UN’s victim centered approach to SEA. We recognize that the UN has improved its SEA reporting and response system and has made significant strides in implementing the SEA survivors Trust Fund in the Central African Republic, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Conduct and Discipline Service, 2020).

In terms of future research, we recommend collecting longitudinal data on SEA survivors who are raising peacekeeper-fathered children. Other stakeholders pertinent to future interviews are contingent leaders, peacekeepers, field victims’ rights advocates, victims’ rights advocate and representatives of the TCC. In addition, building policy responses to SEA-related pregnancies also necessitates a consideration of factors beyond empirical research such as financial constraints and community-level norms. Finally, the present analysis focuses specifically on preventing and responding to SEA-related pregnancies. We acknowledge that men and boys, girls that are not of childbearing age and women who do not conceive children are also SEA victims/survivors. To provide a tailored recommendation based on their lived realities and needs, we call for further research to explore how other SEA victims/survivor groups navigate the UN SEA system to seek justice and reparations.

Conclusion

This research explored the phenomena of seeking justice and reparations for SEA-related pregnancies within the context of MINUSTAH. We analyzed the lived experiences of 18 Haitian SEA survivors who were mothers to peacekeeper-fathered children and subsequently navigated the UN’s SEA prevention/response system. We mapped their lived experiences according to the mico, meso and macro levels of the ecological model. The empirical findings informed the conceptualization of a SEA policy framework that incorporated both proactive/preventative and reactive/harm mitigation policy options.

At the micro-level, in-mission scenario-based contextual training for peacekeepers and access to reproductive/sexual health care and information for women and girls address power hierarchies that enable coercion, exploitation and abuses of power. The meso-level is concerned with efforts that improve trust in reporting SEA-related pregnancies to the local peacekeeping base. Finally, the macro-level includes promoting the socio-economic advancement of women and girls in host countries and ending peacekeeper impunity with respect to SEA-related pregnancies. Securing the well-being of SEA survivors and their children necessitates a holistic proactive and reactive strategy that integrates a complex and nuanced understanding of the challenges faced by survivors who attempt to navigate the UN’s system.

Acknowledgement

We are grateful to the participants who shared their experiences. We are also indebted to the local collaborating partners: Bureau des Avocates Internationaux (BAI) and the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), without whom this work would not have been possible. Specifically, we acknowledge our Haitian colleague, Mr Mario Joseph: the managing attorney of BAI and Franciscka Lucien: the executive director of the Institute of Justice and Democracy in Haiti; and Ms Sandra Wisner: Senior Staff Attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti for their critical insights on the challenges faced in litigating the paternity claims of peacekeeper fathered children in Haiti. We are also thankful to the team of interviewers from KOFAVIV who facilitated the interviews and to Ms Stéphanie Etienne. The project was made possible through the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK.

Figures

Multi-level responses for preventing and responding to SEA-related pregnancies

Figure 1

Multi-level responses for preventing and responding to SEA-related pregnancies

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the participants who shared their experiences. We are also indebted to the local collaborating partners: BAI and the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), without whom this work would not have been possible. Specifically, we acknowledge our Haitian colleague, Mr Mario Joseph: the managing attorney of BAI; Franciscka Lucien: the executive director of BAI; and Ms Sandra Wisner: Senior Staff Attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti for their critical insights on the challenges faced in litigating the paternity claims of peacekeeper fathered children in Haiti. We are also thankful to the team of interviewers from KOFAVIV who facilitated the interviews and to Ms Stéphanie Etienne. The project was made possible through the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK.

Corresponding author

Luissa Vahedi can be contacted at: 16LV6@queensu.ca

About the authors

Ms Luissa Vahedi is an MSc trained Social Epidemiologist. She has received training in both quantitative and qualitative research methods and is interested in using mixed-methods research to understand complex global health disparities affecting the lives of women and children. Ms Vahedi researched sexual abuse and exploitation within peacekeeping contexts as part of her master’s studies. She is pursuing a PhD in Public Health Sciences at the Brown School, Washington University in Saint Louis.

Dr Sabine Lee is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Birmingham. She holds degrees in history, mathematics and philosophy from Düsseldorf University, an MPhil in International Relations and a PhD in history from Cambridge University. Her research has spanned a range of themes from post-war diplomatic history and twentieth-century science history in interdisciplinary research on conflict and security with particular emphasis on conflict-related sexual violence and children born of war. She has led several international and interdisciplinary research projects funded by AHRC, Royal Society, Wellcome Trust, the EU (FP7 and EU-H2020) and she has published extensively in these research fields.

Dr Susan A. Bartels is a Clinician-Scientist at Queen’s University and Canada Research Chair in Humanitarian Health Equity. In addition to practicing emergency medicine, she conducts global public health research focused on how women and children are impacted by humanitarian crises. While much of her work has been in Sub-Saharan Africa, she has also worked in the Middle East, as well as in Asia and Haiti. She is currently the lead investigator on research projects funded by the World Bank/Sexual Violence Research Initiative, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Elrha. Dr Bartels is interested in using innovative methods to improve understanding of health-related topics in complex environments such as armed conflict and natural disasters.

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