LONDON — Aid workers and peacekeepers are sexually abusing young children in war zones and disaster zones but their actions are largely going unpunished, a British charity said Tuesday.
"Children as young as six are trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, soap and, in very few cases, luxury items such as mobile phones," a Save the Children report said.
It also highlighted instances of rape, verbal sexual abuse, child pornography, prostitution and trafficking of youngsters, many of whom are poor, displaced or orphaned by conflict.
The group said the scale of abuse was "significant". Its findings were based on work with hundreds of youngsters from Ivory Coast, southern Sudan and Haiti, said the charity's chief executive Jasmine Whitbread.
"This research exposes the despicable actions of a small number of perpetrators who are sexually abusing some of the most vulnerable children in the world -- the very children they are meant to protect," she added.
"It is hard to imagine a more grotesque abuse of authority or flagrant violation of children's rights."
The charity said "endemic failures" in responding to the abuse that was officially reported, were letting down the abused, and better reporting mechanisms should be introduced.
Fear of aid and assistance being withdrawn, being stigmatised by the local community, fear of reprisals, lack of faith in the response or simply ignorance about how to report abuse were also major factors, it added.
Whitbread said the United Nations, the wider world as well as humanitarian and aid agencies have made important commitments to tackle the problem in recent years.
But most had failed to turn their promises into action, she added, calling for all agencies working in emergencies -- including her own -- to "own up to the fact that they are vulnerable to this problem and tackle it head on".
The UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) was said to be the group most likely to be responsible for abuse. Save the Children said there had been 15 claims against its staff and partners last year, of which three were upheld.
UNPKO spokesman Nick Birnback said it was "entirely unacceptable" that those sent to help the most vulnerable are instead causing grievous harm.
"Clearly a lot more has to be done," he told BBC radio, while rejecting allegations that the problem was widespread and those responsible were getting away with it.
"The vast majority of UN peacekeepers all over the world, of which we have over 100,000 now, serve with honour and courage in very difficult situations and don't engage in this unacceptable behaviour," he added.
The reputation of UN peacekeepers has been tarnished in the past by cases of sexual abuse against women, notably in Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast and Haiti.
In November last year, the UN said that more than 100 Sri Lankan soldiers were to be sent home over charges that they paid for sex while stationed in Haiti.
After turning a blind eye for decades to cases of abuse by its peacekeepers, the world body recommended in 2005 that errant soldiers be punished, their salaries frozen and a fund set up to help any women or girls made pregnant by their actions.
The "zero tolerance" policy towards sexual misconduct includes a "non-fraternisation" rule barring them from sex with locals.
It was brought in after revelations in December 2004 that peacekeepers in DRC were involved in the sexual abuse of 13-year-old girls in exchange for eggs, milk or cash sums as low as one dollar.