Internally displaced women waiting at a food-distribution center in Afgoye, Somalia, on Aug. 4, 2013.
Tobin Jones/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine that the very place Somali women and girls go to seek refuge from the famine and fighting that have engulfed their country—shelter camps organized by African Union troops in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu—is where some of them are allegedly being raped by soldiers tasked with protecting them. 

According to Al-Jazeera, Somali women and girls as young as 12 have reportedly been gang-raped and coerced into sleeping with AU peacekeeping soldiers in exchange for food, medical treatment and other kinds of humanitarian aid, a Human Rights Watch report found.

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Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that works to reduce human rights violations around the world, gathered testimony from 21 Somali women and girls and described in detail the stomach-churning barter system that some of the AU troops reportedly have in place.

"Some of the women who were raped said that the soldiers gave them food or money afterwards in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex," HRW said in the report released Monday.

"They have also raped or otherwise sexually assaulted women who were seeking medical assistance or water at [AU] bases," the report continued.

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The AU troops based in Somalia are a 22,000-man coalition consisting of soldiers from six African nations. They are based in Somalia to fight alongside government fighters who are trying to squash the al-Qaida-influenced terrorist group al-Shabab.

Silas Ntigurirwa, the commander of AMISOM—the name of the AU coalition operating in Somalia—refuted the idea that rapes were an ongoing problem and part of his regiment’s culture. He instead called the reports “allegations of isolated cases of rape,” and maintained that “his troops were given strict orders against raping and looting,” Al-Jazeera reports.

"AMISOM donors include the EU and the U.S.," the news site noted.

According to reports, the alleged rape victims rarely filed official complaints with law-enforcement officials because they feared for their lives.

"Only in two cases had the women who spoke to HRW filed police complaints, because they ‘feared stigma, reprisals from family, police and the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab,’” the news site continued, referencing the HRW report.

An AMISOM spokesman said that the allegations will be investigated, while HRW is calling for the top executives in the AU to take a more definitive stand against sexual assault.

"The AU military and political leadership needs to do more to prevent, identify and punish sexual abuse by their troops," Daniel Bekele, HRW’s Africa head, said.

Read more at Al-Jazeera.