Sexual abuse of children by aid workers and peacekeepers is rife and efforts to protect young people are inadequate, said a report published today.
The study by charity Save the Children UK said there were significant levels of abuse in emergencies, much of it unreported and unless the silence ended, attempts to stamp out exploitation would "remain fundamentally flawed".
Accusations of sexual abuse by United Nations peacekeepers and aid workers around the world have increased in recent years and the UN is investigating claims against its soldiers in hotspots such as Haiti, Liberia, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The report said while the UN and some non-governmental organisations were stepping up efforts to address the problem, a global watchdog should be established this year to monitor attempts to tackle abuse and champion effective responses.
Save the Children based its findings on visits last year to Haiti, Southern Sudan and Ivory Coast. It held 38 focus group discussions with 250 children and 90 adults, followed up by in-depth interviews with some and desk-based research.
The study found a huge range of exploitation and abuse: children trading sex for food, forced sex, verbal sexual abuse, child prostitution, child pornography, sexual slavery, sexual assault and child trafficking.
The focus groups identified children as young as six as having been abused, although most were aged 14 to 15.
UN peacekeepers were identified as the most likely perpetrators by 20 of the 38 groups, although a total of 23 humanitarian, peacekeeping and security organisations were associated with sexual abuse in the three countries.
"All humanitarian and peacekeeping agencies working in emergency situations, including Save the Children UK, must own up to the fact that they are vulnerable to this problem and tackle it head on," said Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children UK.
More than half of the participants in the study identified incidents of sexual touching and forced sex. Of these, 18 and 23 per cent respectively recalled 10 or more such incidents.
"They especially ask us for girls of our age. Often it will be between eight and 10 men who will share two or three girls. When I suggest an older girl, they say that they want a young girl," a 14-year-old boy who works at a peacekeeping camp in Ivory Coast told the Save the Children research team.
And the report said official UN statistics appeared to underestimate the scale of abuse, probably because so much of the exploitation was not reported by victims.
"Clearly there is a significant disparity between the low levels of abuse cited in these statistics and the high levels suggested in field investigations and other evidence," it said.
Save the Children said there were many reasons why abuse was not reported: fear of losing material assistance, threat of retribution, stigmatisation, negative economic impact, lack of legal services, resignation to abuse, lack of information about how to report abuse and, crucially, lack of faith in a response.
Anecdotal evidence from all 38 focus groups suggested there was an endemic failure to respond to reports of abuse.
"Many UN agencies and NGOs working here feel they cannot be touched by anyone," said an aid worker in Ivory Coast.