Mozambique was urged Wednesday to investigate fresh claims that women have been coerced into giving sex or money to receive food aid in regions hit by a four-year insurgency.
Local officials in the northern province of Cabo Delgado have made the demands of women who should be receiving food aid for free from international humanitarian programmes, said Zenaida Machado, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“This is very widespread. It’s a common practice,” she said, pointing to similarities from an investigation HRW conducted two years ago after a deadly cyclone hit a separate province.
She said that the exploitation “happens most at the community level”.
Cabo Delgado has been ravaged by intense violence in recent years which has uprooted least 800,000 people from their homes, with more than 3,100 killed – half of them civilians, according to conflict tracking organisation ACLED.
Data collection has been difficult, with most victim unsure of how and where to report the abuses, but the Human Rights Watch report Wednesday backed findings earlier this week from an investigation by Mozambique’s Centre for Investigative Journalism.
A national watchdog, the Centre for Public Integrity, reported similar claims in October last year.
However, the United Nations said on Friday it will investigate allegations that survivors of a deadly cyclone in Mozambique are being forced to have sex with community leaders for food.
More than 1,000 people died and tens of thousands were forced from their homes when Cyclone Idai hammered Mozambique before moving inland to Malawi and Zimbabwe, in one of the worst climate-related disasters to hit the southern hemisphere.
The U.N. pledge came a day after Human Rights Watch (HRW) published accounts of female survivors who said they were abused by local leaders and as a second powerful storm, Cyclone Kenneth, pounded the impoverished southeast African nation.
“As with any report on sexual exploitation and abuse, we are acting swiftly to follow-up on these allegations, including with the relevant authorities,” the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said in a statement.
“The U.N. has a zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse. It is not, and never will be, acceptable for any person in a position of power to abuse the most vulnerable, let alone in their time of greatest need.” Officials from Mozambique’s disaster management authority were not immediately available for comment.