Women in Mozambique who were affected by Cyclone Idai claim they are being asked for sexual favours in exchange for food and aid, Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization reported Thursday.
Described as the deadliest weather disaster of 2019, the tropical cyclone Idai barreled across southern African nations with flash floods and ferocious winds after making landfall near the Mozambique port city of Beira on March 14.
Heavy rains left entire villages in Manica, Sofala, and Zambezia provinces in Mozambique submerged as floodwaters rose. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and the United Nations says that over 1.85 million people, mostly women and children, are urgently in need of assistance.
The UN World Food Programme, in coordination with the government and other local leaders, have provided about one million people with food assistance, but many others in Mozambique are still in need of food aid.
According to Human Rights Watch, packages of food aid are distributed in coordination with local authorities based on a list of beneficiaries compiled by local community leaders.
But victims, residents, and aid workers claim that the local community leaders, some linked to the ruling Frelimo party, coerced women into engaging in sex with them in exchange for a bag of rice. In other cases, these local leaders demanded money from people affected by the cyclone in exchange for including their names on the aid distribution list.
A community leader in Tica, Nhamatanda district, told Human Rights Watch that in some cases where access by road is impossible, local community leaders store the food and distribute 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. An aid worker said that usually the lists exclude households headed by women, and contain only the names of male heads of households.
“In some of the villages, women and their children have not seen any food for weeks,” she told Human Rights Watch.
“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.
In the town of Mbimbir, Nhamatanda district, humanitarian aid did not arrive until April 5 because flooding had left the area inaccessible by road. Three women from that town told Human Rights Watch that they were forced into exchanging sexual favours for food by local officials as a result.
“When he arrived, he placed the bags on the floor, and started touching his thing (penis) and told me it was now my turn [to] thank him,” one woman said. “I told my children to go to my friend’s house. When they left, I slept with him.”
Another woman, who comes from a household of 17 extended family members, said a local leader offered to help: “He said he could help me if I was nice to him. We agreed on a time to meet and do the thing (have sex).”
The woman was given “only a kilo of beans” in return. She complained, but the community leader told her “tomorrow there will be more”. No arrests have been made so far.
“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.”
This February, women in the Democratic Republic of Congo also claimed that they were being asked for sexual favours in exchange for vaccination against the deadly Ebola virus that has killed over 500 people since it hit the country last August.
The claims were contained in a research conducted by several NGOs. Women applying for Ebola response jobs were also met with recruiters who asked for sexual favours in return for employment, the research added.