Humanitarians fuel South Sudan's growing sex trade

The United Nations House in Juba hosts internally displaced persons. Photo by: Petterik Wiggers / Hollandse Hoogte / CC BY

JUBA, South Sudan — Recounting a recent night with one of her United Nations clients, Gabby says she was asked to wait in the car before the staffer snuck her into his U.N. compound.

“He told me not to let anyone see me and not to speak to anyone,” said Gabby, a 26-year-old sex worker in South Sudan’s capital of Juba. “Once inside, we’d walk step by step and he’d switch off the lights and direct me how to move.”

It was obvious the humanitarian knew what he was doing was wrong and was taking precautions to hide it, said Gabby, whom Devex will continue to refer to only by this name to protect her identity.

Allegations of humanitarians and other global development professionals sexually exploiting members of the communities they serve are not new. The U.N. and international NGOs worldwide have been under scrutiny in recent months for accusations of sexual abuse of vulnerable people. South Sudan is no exception.

Despite the UN's 'zero tolerance policy,' sexual exploitation continues in South Sudan

The United Nations is treating transactional sex allegations against South Sudan's Ghanaian peacekeeping unit as an isolated incident. But several stakeholders tell Devex this is unlikely — and that it is time for the U.N. to relinquish a larger investigation to an independent body.

Last month, the U.N. recalled a 46-member Ghanaian peacekeeping police unit from a protection of civilian site in the town of Wau following allegations of members of the unit having “transactional sex” with locals. The action of the U.N. in this case will provide “interesting insight into whether or not the [U.N.] secretary-general is serious about sexual abuse,” Peter Gallo, an international lawyer and former U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services investigator, told Devex of what comes after the recall.

The U.N. is currently treating the allegations against the Ghanaian peacekeeping unit as an isolated case, stating after the incident that there are no indications that the behavior of the unit is more widespread within the mission.

Devex spoke with several sex workers in Juba who shared that the sex trade in the capital is booming thanks in large part to international aid workers and U.N. staff: “I take advantage,” Gabby said. “They’re good clients, they give good money, better than anybody else.”

The number of sex workers seemingly increases “every day” in Juba, Gabby said, some of them as young as 15. But her client pool has also increased dramatically. Having worked in Juba’s sex trade for the past three years, Gabby counted about 30 people calling her regularly several years ago, she said. Today, she has 100 men seeking her services, about 60 of those she says are U.N. or NGO contacts.

Gabby works three or four nights a week and can make up to $200 a night from one international aid worker or U.N. staff client, she said — an evening that often includes dinner, drinks, and a fully paid hotel room.

This is in stark contrast to her South Sudanese clients, many of whom don’t pay at all and sometimes turn violent. Gabby says her life has been threatened several times when local men have pulled out guns and kicked her out of their cars in the middle of the night, forcing her to walk home in the dark, often miles away from town.

As a result, Gabby rarely works with locals anymore, she said, instead targeting “international guys” who treat her kindly and pay well.

Together with three or four colleagues, she frequents places she knows they’ll find clients, such as a few small bars just several hundred meters away from the U.N. base, where she says she can exchange contact information with men.

Gabby’s international regulars include U.N. staff and NGO workers who are generally “whites from all over,” she said, including Russians, Ukrainians, Britons, and Americans as well as men from other African countries, she said.  

Her 23-year-old colleague Ester says the majority of her clients are Ugandan, many of whom exit the U.N. compound and take her to a hotel.

Not only is prostitution illegal in South Sudan according to the country’s penal code, it’s also against the U.N.s’ code of conduct as well as most NGOs’ ethical mandates.

Oxfam, an international aid group currently facing accusations of sexual exploitation in Haiti, has an employee code of conduct that states that all staff will ensure their relationships and behavior are not “exploitative, abusive or corrupt in any way” and that they won’t “engage in any form of sexual abuse or exploitation of any persons of any age.”

The U.N. Code of Conduct prohibits paying for sex as it constitutes misconduct, according to U.N. Mission in South Sudan acting spokesperson Hiroyuki Saito.

“The Mission encourages anyone who becomes aware of such behavior to report it immediately so we can take action,” Saito said.

But civil societies in South Sudan say the country’s dire economic situation is driving people to prostitution, with women and girls selling their bodies to earn a living out of desperation.

“Well-paid people are fueling the sex worker industry in Juba,” said Edmund Yakani, executive director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a national nonprofit. “NGOs and U.N agencies and top public officers are taking advantage of women and girls’ low access to income.”

Five years of civil war has devastated the world’s youngest nation, which now also finds itself in the throes of an economic crisis. Juba’s city council says prostitution has greatly increased in recent years and is working on shutting down hotels across the city that facilitate sex, according to a source in the mayor’s office.

However, Gabby says her aid worker clients know that sleeping with sex workers is forbidden, which is why they ask her to meet them in “hidden places” where they won’t get caught. In some cases, she’s been invited into their U.N. residence, but is forced to leave through the back door early the next morning.

"As a whole, there is a ‘culture’ in the humanitarian sector that has undertones of ethnocentrism, racism, and misogynism that need to be addressed and challenged,” Tim Berke, South Sudan’s country director for international NGO IsraAID, told Devex.

Recent global events have spurred an interest in speaking out about sexual harassment within aid organizations and exploitation of beneficiaries, he said. But Devex reached out for comment on sexual exploitation in the aid sector to more than 10 NGOs, U.N., and private sector organizations operating in South Sudan, and IsraAID’s Berke was the only one to respond.

Publicly, the U.N. condemns the practice. Speaking at the U.N. headquarters in September, Secretary-General António Guterres called sexual abuse a “global menace” that must end. The U.N. needs to set the global standard for “preventing, responding to and eradicating the scourge,” he said, emphasizing that the “unspeakable acts of a few should not be allowed to tarnish the work of thousands” of U.N. workers, who often risk their lives doing their jobs.

While the international aid community identifies ways to tackle the issue, sex workers in Juba say they’ll continue targeting internationals in order to pay their bills: “I never thought of saying no to anybody,” said Gabby, who added she didn’t realize the practice was wrong, but ultimately that she’ll continue seeking out international clients as long as there is interest.

Through sex work, the single mother has been able to move her two children from Juba’s internally displaced people’s camp to Uganda, where they are now in school.

“I do what I have to do to get the money,” Gabby said.  

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About the author

  • Sam mednick profile

    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on humanitarian, human interest and conflict stories from around the world. Sam’s work has taken her to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, writing for VICE, the Associated Press, Devex, Barcelona Metropolitan and iPolitics among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happy Melly Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.