Editorial Observer: In War-Torn Africa, Young Girls Are Very, Very Old
January 3, 2005


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

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.

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.

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.