About three months ago, while visiting my birth country, Liberia, I walked into a local restaurant for a prearranged meeting with the father of an old school friend. His daughter and I had attended grammar school together as children, and although I don’t see her much these days, I still identify her with my childhood: Girl Scout troop meetings; field trips up country to the zoo; sixth-grade class dances. I was delivering to her father some shirts he had requested from Ghana.
He was sitting at a table in the corner of the restaurant with a young girl. As soon as I saw them, I felt the anger rising in my throat. She couldn’t have been any more than 16; he is pushing 70. “This is my little friend,” he introduced her to me.
There was no shame or embarrassment in his tone; he was perfectly comfortable with parading a teenage war orphan with no other means of support around town as his new girlfriend.
Indeed, his behavior was not out of the ordinary. Just the night before, another mature man of means, this one a former government minister, had bragged at a wedding reception that his current “girlfriend” was getting too old for him. “She just turned 17,” he said, laughing. People around him shook their heads in a “boys will be boys” way.
The news last month that the United Nations has uncovered 150 allegations of sexual abuse committed by its peacekeepers stationed in Congo against an already traumatized population of mostly teenage girls was a sad reminder of what young women are up against in Africa.
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The allegations leveled against United Nations personnel in Congo include sex with under-age partners and rape. Investigators said they found evidence that United Nations peacekeepers paid $1 to $3 for sex or bartered sexual relations for food or promises of employment.
To be sure, sexual, psychological and physical abuse of teenage girls is not limited to Africa. Indeed, the United Nations reports that the accused peacekeepers came from Nepal, Pakistan, Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa and Uruguay — a veritable gallery of international perverts. But in Congo, as in other places where endless war has broken down normal social constraints, innocence is robbed with impunity, and unrelenting poverty and desperation make old, bitter and used women out of the young girls.
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African girls have long lived with the fear of being raped by power-drunk soldiers representing various government or rebel groups. The life of a teenage girl on the continent is almost never easy, and the threats she faces are uncountable, from female genital mutilation to teenage prostitution. The raping of women and young girls has become practically de rigueur in Africa’s wars, from Sierra Leone to the Ivory Coast, from Burundi to Rwanda to Sudan.
Beyond rape in war zones, there’s a mentality that says that sex between a desperate refugee and a wealthy old man is somehow consensual. In Monrovia, which is a postwar mess with war orphans sleeping alongside open roads, electricity a distant dream and food scarce, young girls living in the refugee camps engage in a ritual as old as time.
In the evenings, as the sun is beginning to set, they leave the fetid, trash-strewn camps and assemble along the main roads. Dressed in the best attire they can muster — tight jeans, strappy high-heeled sandals and halter tops — they wait for the fancy S.U.V.’s that slow down, then stop to pick them up and take them into the city for the night.
The United Nations says home countries are responsible for punishing any of their military personnel who violate the U.N. code of conduct. That’s a prescription for inaction, because, regrettably, too many leaders, and not just in Africa, see no problem with picking up young girls on the side of the road at night.
Looking at the face of my friend’s father that afternoon in the restaurant, I could see my friend’s features. His lunch companion was the same age my friend and I had been when we cavorted around as teenagers. We watched “Charlie’s Angels” and experimented with makeup and went to the Saturday afternoon matinees. Our biggest problems revolved around crushes on various boys and hoping against hope that whoever we liked wouldn’t find out we liked them.
I wondered if the old man ever thought about his own daughter when he looked at his “little friend.” My guess is, probably not.