Workers are preying on desperate women and girls with promise of food, while refusing to feed elderly people
Women in refugee camps in Mozambique have told openDemocracy they are being forced to exchange sex for food aid | Adobe Stock / Alfredo Zuniga / Contributor
Macia* was 13 years old when she arrived, already pregnant, at a camp for internally displaced people in Cabo Delgado province, northern Mozambique, in May 2020.
Like thousands of others, she had escaped the conflict that has been raging in the province since 2018, mainly fought between militant Islamist fighters (known locally as Al-Shabaab) and Mozambican security forces. The Islamists burnt down her home, beheaded her father and brothers, and raped her.
But now, Macia alleges that while she’s been in the camp, she’s been forced to exchange sex for food aid from local relief workers. “I have been sleeping with several men since 2020 in order to feed myself and my toddler,” she told openDemocracy.
Macia, now 16, is pregnant again and said that “to feed the cravings of this pregnancy, I have succumbed to the sexual demands of the powers that be”.
Asked who was responsible for her second pregnancy, Macia said: “I am not sure. What I am sure about is that I am the mother and I am alone.”
There are close to 14,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the camp and they depend almost exclusively on humanitarian aid, particularly from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the local Islamic community and Caritas, a Catholic aid organisation.
openDemocracy travelled to Cabo Delgado to speak to several women who, like Macia, allege that the local relief workers responsible for distributing food have been demanding sex and money in return.
The relief workers are supposed to be hired by Mozambique’s government to distribute the aid provided by the WFP and others, but loopholes mean they are often appointed by community leaders. openDemocracy reached out to government officials but did not receive a response.
The leaders control who receives food aid, and often use this to their advantage.
“When I arrived [at the camp] after travelling for almost two weeks, I was weak and hungry. I was told that I did not qualify to be on the list to receive food aid,” Macia said, claiming a community leader told her that this was because she was a woman.
She said that one of the leaders advised her that, because “I was light-skinned with a good shape, he would help me get food – if I gave that beauty to him”.
The WFP told openDemocracy it has received reports of abuse since 2019. It “has not undertaken any investigations against local leaders”, according to the programme’s spokesperson, Denise Dalla Colletta.
Instead, Coletta explained, “WFP refers the victims to gender-based violence services, which include psychosocial support and legal assistance”. These organisations provide clarity on possible legal recourse.
Though survivors openDemocracy spoke to were too scared to name their abusers, one alleged relief worker was identified by multiple women.
“He terrorised us between 2020 and 2021. We were scared of him,” recalled Unna, one of the internally displaced women at the camp.
“He always came wearing an orange bib, driving a big car. He would give instructions to the workers on the ground. They would then distribute a few bags of food and tell us that the rest were for sale.”
My sister is only 15, and she has also succumbed to the demands of these heartless men to get more food for the family
At another camp openDemocracy visited in Cabo Delgado, another community leader’s name came up as having allegedly abused multiple women.
“He was obsessed with tall, beautiful women. If he finds you attractive, he would tell you: ‘There is no need to put your name down. I will ensure you are fed, so that you will also feed me,’” said one woman, Ozama, explaining that the man was referring to sex.
She added: “He did that to me and two other women that I know.”
Cabo Delgado is one of the world’s forgotten conflicts, but the Mozambique state’s failure to provide support for its IDPs has made matters worse.
The government has not been directly involved in registering displaced people and has not drawn up lists of people who should benefit from international aid. But it also does not allow aid organisations to draw up lists themselves, arguing that Mozambique is a sovereign state.
The job is therefore the responsibility of local chiefs and community leaders, who are closely affiliated with the ruling party and rarely held accountable – even for alleged sexual abuse.
“Those community leaders are grassroot supporters of the ruling Frelimo party, they mobilise supporters for Frelimo, they collect money from the community for Frelimo, they campaign for Frelimo,” explained Borges Nhamirre, a researcher on the Mozambique conflict for the Institute for Security Studies.
Nhamirre added that he doesn’t expect the alleged perpetrators to be brought to justice, “because ever since the abuses began no one has ever been convicted. I don't think this case will ever be resolved”.
Sometimes we suspend food distribution because the top ten names on the list are the chief and his family
Manuel Nota, Caritas programme director
As well as the allegations of sexual abuse, the community leaders’ lack of expertise also comprises the level of care they can offer refugees.
According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, the leaders “do not have the professional training that allows them to manage processes as complex and sensitive as the registration of thousands of people displaced by conflict”.
They are also corrupt – taking food meant for IDPs for themselves. Caritas programme director Manuel Nota confirmed instances of this happening in Cabo Delgado.
“Sometimes we ended up suspending food distribution because you find that the top ten names on the list were the chief and his family,” she told openDemocracy. “The intended beneficiaries [the IDPs] feel hopeless to report the cases, usually for fear of being victimised.”
Sex in exchange for aid
Next to Macia’s makeshift plastic tent, Asumuta, 34, originally from Pemba, the provincial capital, says it took nine months for her name to appear on the official register of aid recipients. This register is supposed to include heads of families, male and female, and in some cases priority is accorded to vulnerability status, including age, pregnancy or health condition.
“My name [had] not been on the list since [arriving at the camp in] June 2021,” she said. “I have two kids and a young sister to feed. I don’t know where my husband is. We were separated when war began in our town.
Asumata says she was forced to sleep with several men, who were heads of the community responsible for food distribution. “The abuse only stopped when I finally got my name registered in March 2022, also after sleeping with a community leader.”
She added: “My young sister is only 15, and she has also succumbed to the demands of these heartless men to get more food for the family.”
Six other women from the same camp also reported having been raped or coerced into sex in order to get aid.
They said I had nothing to offer them for food. They said I am too old to pay them back with sex
Other displaced people at the same camp, including four women and six men who spoke to openDemocracy, have been asked to pay for the aid – or refused it altogether..
Oswar said his name was continuously omitted from the list, so he had to “go around the neighbouring communities doing odd jobs to be able to get money to pay the relief workers for food”.
Aricie, 78, said she arrived at the camp in December 2020 but still struggles to get food. “The people in charge told me that I had nothing to offer them if they helped me get food. They said I am too old to pay them back with sex,” she said, adding that the only way she’s been taken care of is through a couple from her village who are also in the camp.
Macia’s dreams of becoming a lawyer have been crushed by the war. “Very soon, I will be a mother of two at 16, mothering children that I never planned to have. I wanted to become a lawyer and get married to a rich man,” she told openDemocracy.
*Names have been changed