Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday urged Mozambique authorities to investigate and prosecute perpetrators accused of sexually exploiting women who were affected by Cyclone Idai in exchange for food and aid.
The velocity of Cyclone Idai, which hit the country on March 14, blew away electricity power lines and trees, levelled many homes and businesses to the ground.
According to the United Nations, more than a million people in Mozambique are “still struggling to get back on their feet” in the wake of the storm.
HRW said community leaders, some linked to the ruling Frelimo party, have coerced women into having sex in exchange for “a bag of rice” or demanded money in order to have their names included on aid distribution lists, citing victims, residents and aid workers.
“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, HRW’s Southern Africa director.
“Emergency aid should be given freely to all people in need, and the government along with aid providers should ensure that aid distribution is never used as an opportunity to commit abuse,” Mavhinga said.
Humanitarian agencies have been racing to feed, clothe, accommodate and provide healthcare to storm survivors.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the UN appealed for donations of $282m to fund emergency assistance for three months.
The IMF board approved a zero-interest, $118.2m loan for recovery efforts in Mozambique last week.
The UN World Food Programme says it has reached one million people with food assistance.
One community leader in Tica, Nhamatanda district, told HRW that in some cases where access by road is impossible, local community leaders are responsible for storing the food and distributing 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 often the lists exclude households headed by women.
“In some of the villages, women and their children have not seen any food for weeks,” she told HRW.
“They would do anything for food, including sleeping with men in charge of the food distribution.”
Cases of sexual abuse of women in internally displaced people camps were also received by an international organisation, an aid worker said.
Three women in the town of Mbimbir, Nhamatanda district, where humanitarian aid did not arrive until April 5 because flooding had left the area inaccessible by road, told HRW that they were coerced into exchanging sexual favours for food by local officials.
“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 told HRW. “I told my children to go to my friend’s house. When they left, I slept with him.”
Another woman 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, who comes from a household of 17 extended family members, added that she was given “only a kilo of beans” in return. When she complained, the community leader told her “tomorrow there will be more”.
No arrests or disciplinary measures have been taken against those accused.
Earlier in April, three people were arrested on suspicion of allegedly diverting at least 19 bags of rice, 19 bags of flour, 11 bags of soybeans and 100 kilogrammes (220 pounds) of beans in relief.
Cyclone Idai, which cut a deadly swath through Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe last month, left more than two million people – 1.85 million of them in Mozambique – affected by the storm.
The damage by Idai is estimated by the World Bank to have cost the three countries more than two billion dollars.