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Aid Group: Displaced Children in Great Lakes Region of Africa at Risk of Sexual Abuse

VOA News - February 26, 2007

World Vision

The aid group World Vision is urging governments and the international community to tackle poverty and war in the Great Lakes region of Africa, where, the group says, displaced children are especially at risk of being sexually exploited. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

A World Vision report released Monday in Uganda says 1.4 million children have been displaced by war in the Great Lakes region, and half of them are victims of sexual exploitation.

The report examines the lives of refugee and internally displaced children living in camps in Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization that works with children and their families.

World Vision researcher Valarie Vat Kamatsiko tells VOA that the children live in abject poverty, which makes then vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

"Children are compelled to have sex in exchange of money to go to hospital, of money to buy food, even sometimes for their families," she said. "Buying things like lotion or dresses, children are compelled to engage in sex in order for them to get the things that they are supposed to be provided for by their parents, and of course, internally-displaced children are the responsibility of governments, as well."

Kamatsiko says the most common predators are foster parents, teachers, neighbors, and immediate community members. Victims are mostly teenaged girls or orphans.

She says the children's situation is made worse by a breakdown of law and order in some places, little or no support systems for them to turn to, and negative cultural practices, such as girls being forced to marry early so their families can collect a bride price - a payment from the groom's family to the bride's.

The report calls for national governments to formulate and implement policies that protect and help displaced people, ensure that children have access to basic health care and education, and to re-unite children with their families.

Kamatsiko says the region and international partners must also make development and securing peace priorities.

"These displacements are caused by conflict. Therefore, there is need to put a conflict resolution, reconciliation and peace efforts at the forefront. We also call on international organizations, the donors, to increase humanitarian assistance, because the problem is huge, and yet the resources are limited," she said.

The Great Lakes region has been a cauldron of conflict for years.

Burundi is recovering from more than a decade of civil war. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, while violence continues in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Lord's Resistance Army rebel group is said to be responsible for immense suffering in northern Uganda since the late 1980s.

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