War and foreign intervention always stimulate local economies, both commercially and sexually, and that is certainly the case in Juba, capital of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. According to a report on Swedish radio today, prostitution is booming in the East African city due to the presence of thousands of international aid workers and particularly UN soldiers. “The scope of the sex trade and the number of prostitutes has exploded in recent years,” says Cathy Groenendijk of the NGO Confident Children Out of Conflict, or CCC. She is currently stationed in this city of 245,000, where she is studying the prostitution issue. “A few years ago, there were no more than a few thousand prostitutes here, but the number has increased sharply.” She estimates the current number in the city at around 10,000. While this places Juba far behind Nairobi, one of Africa's sex tourism capitals, where an estimated 30% of children and teenagers have had contact with the business, it shows that this emerging oil Eldorado is a fast learner.
Although prostitutes have been flowing to the city for years from the Sudanese hinterland and from Kenya, the presence of foreign aid workers with money to burn has meant a bonanza for the pimps and human traffickers, who dominate much – although by no means all – of Juba’s sex market. “Many of the international UN soldiers and aid workers who are stationed in South Sudan are single men, since their organizations frequently don’t allow their families to follow them,” Groenendijk explains. She quotes a Kenyan prostitute called Sheryl, who “came here to look for a job. But I found nothing but this,” a brothel on the banks of the Nile, where she and six other women provide sexual services at around $11 a trick.
For want of foreign tourists and prosperous locals, NGO employees are her best customers, Sheryl said. “Aid workers and UN people love to buy sex! Some of them come here and are with a different woman every day of the month.”
The story out of Juba is still relatively fresh and thus has yet to reach scandal status. But there is no question that the UN has a disastrous record when it comes to sexual misconduct and actual systematic abuse on its global missions. Anyone who has ever dealt with the organization knows that sex work is just as much a part of UN culture as the colors blue and white. But matters got so out of hand within the UN missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti, where rape and pedophilia were endemic, that the organization has been forced to introduce strict curfews and anti-fraternization rules. In Bosnia, the mafia-like trafficking structures that UN police officer Kathy Bolcovac uncovered during her posting there inspired the Hollywood movie The Whistleblower, starring Rachel Weisz. "We cannot tolerate even one instance of a United Nations peacekeeper victimizing the most vulnerable among us," General Secretary Kofi Annan wrote in an official letter back in 2003.
But when it comes to genuine reform, the UN is hamstrung by its lack of jurisdiction over individual soldiers and civilians who break the organization’s own rules and those of the countries where they are stationed. All it can do is waive the offenders’ immunity and ship them home, in hopes that their own authorities will take charge of their case. This does not always happen, however, and the UN has a notoriously poor follow-through record. When it comes to foreign aid, an ounce of prevention beats a ton of scandal.