The purpose of this research was to generate empirical understandings of peacekeeper-perpetrated sexual misconduct through secondary analysis of 2541 self-interpreted narratives obtained from Haitian community members who lived in proximity to MINUSTAH peacekeeping bases.
Geographic distribution of sexual misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers
Multi-variate log-binomial regression was used to model the probability of participants sharing a narrative that addressed sexual misconduct perpetrated by MINUSTAH peacekeepers as a function of location. After adjusting for narrator age, emotional tone of the narrative, and who the narrative was about, the probability of sharing a narrative about sexual misconduct was greatest in rural locations, followed by urban locations. Narratives shared in semi-urban locations had the least probability of mentioning sexual misconduct.
Peacekeeping economies may explain why narratives shared in rural locations had a greater probability of mentioning sexual misconduct compared to urban locations. Given women and girls in rural Haiti face greater socio-economic disparities compared to their urban counterparts (47), their participation in peacekeeping economies was hypothesized to be greater, potentially leading to a variety of sexual interactions with peacekeepers: transactional sex, commercial sex work, long-term relationships, and SEA. Thus, we expected the occurrence of sexual misconduct to be greater in rural locations, compared to urban locations.
However, the mechanism of peacekeeping economies does not consider the conduct and discipline of peacekeepers within each base. The rural-effect may also be explained by the differential implementation of sexual misconduct deterrence measures such as: the zero-tolerance policy, SEA reporting mechanisms, surveillance, and peacekeeper discipline. The certainty of punishment has been identified as an important factor in deterring potential SEA perpetrators during PO (48).
The model included narratives of children fathered by peacekeepers within the sexual misconduct outcome. The mechanism of peacekeeping economies does not fully address the existence of children fathered by MINUSTAH peacekeepers. The rural-effect may be more fully explained by considering differential access to resources and information between urban and rural locations, such as contraception needs and access to abortion. Narratives that mention children fathered by peacekeeper might be shared to a greater extent in rural locations because women and girls in rural Haiti could be more at risk of conceiving children with peacekeepers on account of unmet contraception needs or inability to access abortion.
Lastly, the current sample is not exclusively comprised of first-person narratives. The inclusion of narratives about family/friends or community members may speak to differing social dynamics such as comfort speaking about the experiences of other people and the ease with which information travels through a community. In conclusion, the rural-effect identified is likely a multi-causal phenomenon that is partially explained by the participation of women and girls in peacekeeping economies. Future research should aim to further elucidate the variability of SEA attributable to geographical location. The geographical distribution of SEA could have implications for how the UN allocates conduct and discipline resources and where it focuses its SEA prevention training.
The findings presented in the current analysis indicate that narratives collected from rural locations in Haiti have a greater probability of mentioning sexual misconduct, compared to urban locations. No other studies have examined the distribution of peacekeeper-perpetrated sexual misconduct by urban, rural, and semi-urban locations. However, research that applies regression modelling to peacekeeping data over multiple mission years exists. Some parallels can also be drawn to the work of Nordas and Rustard (28) who identified host-country risk factors of reported SEA. Low GDP per capita, high level of pre-conflict sexual violence, and absence of spousal rape law were positively associated with reported SEA. Similarly, Moncrief (29) found increasing host-country GDP per capita was significantly related to reduced SEA allegations. Finally, Neudorfer (48) investigated whether the presence of conduct and discipline units (CDUs) were associated with reduced SEA allegations. The author concluded the introduction of a conduct and discipline unit in PO was negatively and significantly correlated with the number of SEA allegations. Given the distribution of sexual misconduct narratives, it might be prudent to decentralize the CDU within a given PO such that CDUs are also placed in at-risk locations.
Elucidating the geographical distribution of SEA in Haiti will advance the understanding of regions that are most at-risk. While the UN no longer has an active peacekeeping presence in Haiti since the 2019 termination of the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, the country continues to face prolonged and consistent insecurity. Currently, it is unknown whether the UN plans to reinstate future PO in Haiti. However, it is clear that the UN has a 25 year history of deploying PO in Haiti (5), resulting in a deeply entrenched economic dependence on international actors and humanitarian organizations. Diligence in understanding regions within Haiti most affected and at risk of sexual misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers is a prudent first step in rebuilding community partnerships.
Not only could deterrence measures such as CDUs be implemented, but also interventions that address the social and economic factors that increase the vulnerability of experiencing SEA. Approaches to preventing and responding to SEA exist on a spectrum, from targeting peacekeepers to targeting local women and girls (49). By recognizing the geographical distribution of SEA, actionable intervention areas can be identified. In the absence of an evidence-based approach with respect to the allocation of deterrence and prevention policies and programs, sexual misconduct perpetrated by MINUSTAH peacekeepers has the potential to further tarnish the UN’s legitimacy in host countries.
Impact of sexual misconduct on the desire to engage with the UN
Multi-variate log-binomial regression modeled the probability of reporting a desire to reject the UN/MINUSTAH as a function of distinct experiences with MINUSTAH peacekeepers. After adjusting for income, gender, emotional tone, and relationship status, we found positive associations between experiences of peacekeeper misconduct (both related to sexual misconduct and not) and the desire to reject the UN/MINUSTAH. The association between subject-matter of the narrative and desire to reject the UN was modified by who the narrative was about. This statistically-significant interaction revealed that while general positive associations are noted, the strength of the association differed by who experienced the misconduct.
The non-overlapping 95% confidence intervals demonstrate that the RR point estimates comparing sexual misconduct to positive/neutral experiences were statistically different between the personal and community strata. Regarding personal narratives, narrators of stories about experiences of sexual misconduct had 4.52 (95% CI: 3.34, 6.12) times the probability of rejecting the UN/MINUSTAH compared to narrators who shared positive/neutral experiences. Among narratives about community members, narrators of experiences about sexual misconduct had 2.51 (95% CI: 2.00, 3.14) times the probability of rejecting the UN/MINUSTAH compared to narrators who shared positive/neutral experiences. These results suggest that first-hand experiences of sexual misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers had the most extreme effect on the probability of rejecting the UN/MINUSTAH. Due to a lower sample size in the family/friends stratum (N = 215), the imprecise CI (95% CI: 1.35, 7.11) surrounding the point estimates for the family/friends stratum prevented meaningful inferences regarding the heterogeneity of effect.
Exposure to everyday experiences with peacekeepers will shape civilian perceptions of peacekeepers, which in turn affects the desire to engage with peacekeepers (40). Local civilians may not have access to reliable information about peacekeepers (41); they rely on personal, vicarious, and community-level experiences regarding the day-to-day activities of peacekeepers. Thus, experiences with peacekeepers influence perceptions, thereby impacting decisions related to engaging with the UN/MINUSTAH.
Using a rigorous random sampling strategy, Gordon and Young found that exposure to abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers negatively affected perceptions related to the effectiveness, abusiveness, and benevolence of peacekeepers (40). Negative perceptions of peacekeepers were found to reduce cooperation with peacekeepers, measured through information sharing. The earlier work of Gordon and Young suggested perceptions of peacekeepers mediate the relationship between narratives of sexual misconduct and the probability of rejecting the UN/MINUSTAH. Furthermore, exposure to abuses perpetrated by peacekeepers were negatively associated to cooperation with peacekeepers, in terms of information sharing and crime reporting. Likewise, the current results indicate that exposure to misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers increased the probability of rejecting the UN/MINUSTAH, compared to positive/neutral experiences with peacekeepers.
Gordon and Young aggregated a variety of abuses perpetrated by MINUSTAH peacekeepers into one category: excessive use of force, theft, sexual exploitation, and domestic abuse (40). Unlike Gordon and Young, the present analysis disaggregated misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers into two categories: sexual misconduct and other wrongdoings. This allowed for the separation of effect between sexual misconduct and other wrongdoings perpetrated by peacekeepers on the probability of rejecting the UN/MINUSTAH. In addition, results expand the mechanism proposed by Gordon and Young by considering effect modification according to whether experiences with peacekeepers were first-hand or vicarious (about family/friends or community members). The results suggested that first-hand experiences of sexual misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers had a more extreme effect on the probability of rejecting the UN/MINUSTAH. Therefore, the closer in proximity experiences to sexual misconduct are, the greater the probability of rejecting the UN/MINUSTAH. In other words, first-hand and vicarious experiences of sexual misconduct are distinct lived experiences that have differential effects on the desire to engage with the UN/MINUSTAH.
The UN’s continued presence in Haiti, either through PO or other humanitarian organizations, is negatively affected by MINUSTAH’s legacy of sexual misconduct. The present analysis makes the case that sexual misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers not only affects the individuals who experience abuse and exploitation but also the individuals’ social networks and communities. MINUSTAH’s legacy in Haiti is interconnected with narratives of SEA and negative sentiments related to the willingness to engage with the UN. Future PO and humanitarian actors deployed to Haiti will live and work in regions where local community members have deeply entrenched perceptions, sentiments, and attitudes that diminish cooperation and trust. This is likely to affect the legitimacy of future UN operations in Haiti, thereby destabilizing long-term peace-building and democratization agendas.
The results must be interpreted with several limitations in mind. Due to prolonged political instability and earthquake-related losses such as mass death, displacement, and weak infrastructure, the 2003 Haitian census is not usable (40). Consequently, a sampling frame of the Haitian population is difficult to acquire. The purposeful and convenience sampling strategies employed are not ideal for generalising results to the Haitian population at large. Nevertheless, a large sample of Haitians living in proximity to MINUSTAH bases was obtained. Compared to the 2016–2017 DHS, a greater proportion of participants in the sample: achieved higher levels of education, attained average income, were male, and were single/never married. Therefore, the sample obtained for the cross-sectional survey was not an accurate representation of the Haitian population at large, based on 2016–2017 DHS data, but may be more reflective of Haitians living near MINUSTAH bases.
Convenience sampling has the potential to introduce selection bias. The gender imbalance noted in the sample (70% males, 30% females) is the result of participants’ self-selection out of the study. Based on consultations with the Haitian community partners who implemented the study, Haitian women and girls maybe more likely to refuse participation due to culture of shame around sex and sexual violence, fear of being arrested or identified, distrust of research, avoidance of secondary trauma, research fatigue, fear of the peacekeeper being repatriated, and frustration due to peacekeeper immunity. Research assistants recruited participants in public and community settings during the day: markets, post offices, and bus stops. This may have reduced the probability of recruiting certain members of the population: women responsible for domestic duties, persons living with disabilities, and older adults.
Second, in the first regression model, the location where the cross-sectional survey was administered was used as a proxy for the location were the event in the narrative occurred. This may be problematic because location at the point of interview may not represent the location where the events in the narrative occurred. Third,narratives shared by the participants sometimes addressed more than one distinct experience with MINUSTAH peacekeepers. Consequently, the classification of single narratives that addressed multiple experiences into distinct subject-matter categories was challenging. Narratives that contained descriptions of sexual interactions in addition to other experiences were classified as being about sexual misconduct. This classification may be related to the outcome because experiences of sexual misconduct alongside other wrongdoings may have a more profound and extreme effect on the desire to reject the UN/MINUSTAH. Finally, a number of potential confounders were missing: earthquake-related losses, exposure to gang-related violence, level of sexual violence preceding the PO, number of internally displaced persons, composition and size of peacekeeping contingent peacekeeper gender and SEA training, TPCC laws against marital rape, etc.
In light of the limitations, the analyses presented should be seen as exploratory, as there is little causal research to date examining the distribution and consequences of sexual misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers. The results from both models explain associations rather than causal mechanisms. To further support the implementation of evidence-based policies and programs, more rigorous population-based studies using sampling strategies (27,40) that examine target intervention areas in Haiti and the effect of experiencing sexual misconduct on the willingness to engage with the UN should be conducted.
Strengths and contributions
This research contributes to the growing field of scholarship at the intersection of epidemiology and peacekeeping. In contrast to traditional cross-sectional questionnaires implemented in host countries, this research utilizes SenseMaker to capture the complex, nuanced, multi-faceted phenomenon of sexual relations between Haitian females and UN peacekeepers. SenseMaker allowed for the rapid collection of mixed-methods data, between June to August of 2017, which included 2541 narratives about the experiences of women and girls in relation to MINUSTAH from a variety of community members.
The nature of SEA during MINUSTAH merits specific analysis given sexual violence perpetrated by UN peacekeepers in Haiti exists within the context of intra-state violence and earthquake-related losses. Therefore, this work provides in-depth and contextualized analysis of how sexual relations with peacekeepers operated in Haiti as an alternative to the analysis of SEA count data aggregated over multiple peacekeeping missions and host countries. Similar to sexual violence more broadly, sexual misconduct perpetrated by peacekeepers is a widely unreported crime; accounts of SEA that are formally reported to the UN represent a small proportion of all cases. While our research does not analyze substantiated reports of SEA, we include experiences of sexual misconduct that might never enter the UN’s formalized system of reporting. Accordingly, this research captures a wider variety of sexual misconduct perpetrated in Haiti compared to counts of SEA formally reported and/or substantiated by the UN or TPCC. Consequently, a more community-driven and grounded understanding of personal, vicarious, and community level experiences related to sexual relations with peacekeepers is possible.
In addition, within existing literature, SEA has been largely framed as a women’s issue as demonstrated through predominantly female-only samples. This analysis integrates the voices of Haitian men and women. The results illustrate Haitian men and boys are directly and indirectly affected by civilian-peacekeeper-perpetrated sexual misconduct and their perspectives are important to establish a holistic understanding of how sexual relations with peacekeepers affect communities that host PO.