The Mozambique authorities should urgently investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged sexual exploitation of Cyclone Idai victims by local officials, Human Rights Watch said today. Hunger and destruction caused by the cyclone have left hundreds of thousands of women vulnerable to abuse.
Victims, residents, and aid workers told Human Rights Watch that local community leaders, some linked to the ruling Frelimo party, demanded money from people affected by the cyclone in exchange for including their names on the aid distribution list. In some cases, women without money were instead coerced into engaging in sex with local leaders in exchange for a bag of rice.
"The sexual exploitation of women struggling to feed their families after Cyclone Idai is revolting and cruel and should be stopped immediately," said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should promptly investigate reports of women being coerced into exchanging sex for food and appropriately punish anyone using their position of power to exploit and abuse women."
On March 14, 2019, Tropical Cyclone Idai hit near the coastal city of Beira, bringing heavy rains that left entire villages in Manica, Sofala, and Zambezia provinces submerged as floodwaters rose. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and, according to the United Nations, over 1.85 million people, most of them women and children, are urgently in need of assistance.
The UN World Food Programme said it has reached one million people with food assistance, in coordination with the government and the National Institute for Disaster Management, but many others have yet to receive any assistance. The national agency distributes packages of food aid in coordination with local authorities based on a list of beneficiaries compiled by community leaders, including administrators and neighborhood secretaries.
A local community leader in the town of Tica, Nhamatanda district, told Human Rights Watch that in some cases, where access by road is impossible, local community leaders are responsible for storing the food and distributing it to families on a weekly basis. She said that, "Because the food is not enough for everyone," some local leaders have exploited the situation by charging people to include their names on the distribution lists.
One aid worker said that the distribution list often contains only the names of male heads of households, and excludes families headed by women. "In some of the villages, women and their children have not seen any food for weeks," she said. "They would do anything for food, including sleeping with men in charge of the food distribution."
Another aid worker said that her international organization had received reports of sexual abuse of women not only in their villages, but also in camps for internally displaced people. She said they were monitoring the situation and training people to raise awareness among women and to report any cases of sexual exploitation or abuse.
Human Rights Watch on April 18 spoke by phone with three women in the town of Mbimbir, Nhamatanda district, where humanitarian aid did not arrive until April 5 because flooding had left the area inaccessible by road. All three said that local officials had coerced them into exchanging sex for food aid. One woman said that for weeks she had been struggling to feed her children on wet corn and fruits they managed to pick up as the ground dried out.
She said that when the food distribution started on April 6, a man locally known as a Frelimo secretary who oversaw the distribution list told her that her name was not on the list. He told her to go wait at home, and that he would come later "to help her if she helped him too." She said that in the evening, the man brought a bag of rice, a bag of corn flour, and one kilo of beans. "When he arrived, he placed the bags on the floor, and started touching his thing [penis] and told me it was now my turn thank him," she said. "I told my children to go to my friend's house. When they left, I slept with him."
Another woman, with four children, said that only her father had his name on the list and the food allocated to him was not enough for their entire household of 17. She spoke to a community leader who offered to help. "He said he could help me if I was nice to him," she said. "We agreed on a time to meet and do the thing [have sex]. When we finished, he gave me only a kilo of beans. When I complained, he said 'Tomorrow there will be more.'"
Human Rights Watch on April 22 spoke with two young women from Nhamatanda district who alleged that a local leader from Tica, who had been implicated in similar abuses, coerced them into sex in exchange for adding their names to the distribution list. Both refused to give details, fearing reprisals. One of the women said that a local official had reprimanded them "for speaking out on the issue."
A community official told Human Rights Watch that the Tica town administrator called in the leader implicated in sexual exploitation for questioning - but no disciplinary action was taken against him. Another local leader in Nhamatanda district confirmed that community leaders had met with the man, and that he denied the allegations.
The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide that internally displaced people "have the right to request and to receive protection and humanitarian assistance" from authorities and "not be persecuted or punished for making such a request." Those providing assistance need to respect the "human rights of internally displaced persons and take appropriate measures in this regard."
The Mozambican government should urgently adopt measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse of cyclone victims and create an environment in which women can come forward and report abuses, Human Rights Watch said. International partners, particularly the UN, should ensure greater oversight of the conduct of local officials during the distribution of humanitarian aid.
"The Mozambican authorities have an obligation to ensure that everyone gets the protection they need in this situation, including vulnerable women at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse," Mavhinga said. "Emergency aid should be given freely to all people in need, and the government along with aid providers should ensure that aid distribution is never used as an opportunity to commit abuse."