When the US military pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, it left something of a living legacy. American servicemen had impregnated tens of thousands of Vietnamese women. The US government eventually created a special visa for those often-impoverished children, and funded a residential center for the ones left behind. But this issue is not confined to Americans in Vietnam, or even to wartime. It’s also an often overlooked side-effect of United Nations peacekeeping operations.
This issue is hardly confined to Vietnam, the U.S. military, or even wartime.
The United Nations has had 69 peacekeeping operations since 1948, and there are currently almost 100,000 uniformed UN personnel in 17 operations around the world. It is known that some leave behind children or pregnant women, yet there is no system in place for local women to file paternity claims with the UN.
In the seaside town of Port Salut, five-year-old Sasha Francesca Barrios basks in the attention of her mother and a couple of visitors. She talks about school and sings the popular Haitian children’s song Ti Zwazo, or Litte Bird. And when her mother asks her to identify the young pale man in a photo, she knows right away, “Papa m,” Or ‘my Dad.’
Barrios lives in a small house with her mother, grandmother and aunt. Her mom, Roselaine Duperval, says Sasha’s father was a marine in the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH, but Barrios has never met him.
“They came here, and there was one who was good with me,” Duperval says. “He said he loved me, and we were together. I never thought if I stayed with him and had a child with him, that he would leave and not support the child.”
But she did get pregnant. She says the marine, who was from Uruguay, gave her $200 early in her pregnancy, but he left Haiti before Sasha was born, and she never heard from him again. Now she’s scraping by giving manicures and pedicures in people’s homes.
“They come in our country to help us,” she says, “and they don’t help us; they have kids with us and leave. I need aid for my child, to pay for school. It’s MINUSTAH’s responsibility. We’re in a country without work. We need the UN’s help. They know MINUSTAH troops leave babies here, children without dads.”
She says ‘us,’ because she knows other women in the same situation. In February, the UN brought seven mothers, including her, to the capital with their children for DNA tests.
Now the seven women are still waiting for results. One Uruguayan military official said the alleged fathers have been asked to submit DNA samples. If paternity is established, it will be up to the Uruguayan courts to determine what should be done about it.
Of course, establishing paternity and getting child support are also a challenge when the dad is a local Haitian. But community activist Miriame Duclair says it’s much harder when the father is a foreign peacekeeper.
“The difference,” Duclair says, “is if it’s [a Haitian] dad, often his family will help the mom… But when a foreigner leaves a child, there’s no one to help. When the UN talks about coming to Haiti to stabilize, it’s not true. They’re destabilizing.”
The UN does have a policy of helping facilitate paternity claims and child support in these kinds of cases, though it’s ultimately up to the country where the peacekeeper is from to determine follow-up.
Uruguayan Army Colonel Girardo Frigossi says no matter what the circumstances, relationships between UN peacekeepers and locals are never acceptable.
“There’s no possibility of any relation, consensual or not,” he says, “because the power is in the UN soldier, because they have food, they have water, they can provide security, they have money.”
Sylvain Roy, of the UN’s Conduct and Discipline Unit, or CDU, makes it even clearer. “Regardless of whether the mother might have been consenting,” he says, “the relationship is exploitative.”
Rose Mina Joseph was 16 when she became pregnant, she says, by a 35-year-old Uruguayan peacekeeper. She doesn’t describe her relationship with him as exploitative, but it’s clear that the food he offered was part of the draw.
“The peacekeepers would provide protection, and they helped kids here,” she says. “They would give them a little food, and all that, and they were always giving to me too.”
She takes out a photo of herself and, she says, her peacekeeper boyfriend on her 17th birthday, standing behind a cake and a table covered in food.
But she says after he left Haiti he eventually stopped picking up his phone and sending money.
An official back in Uruguay says the alleged father agreed to submit to a DNA test. If he’s proved to be the father, the case will be decided in a domestic court.
“I want MINUSTAH to get me out of poverty,” Joseph says, “to put me and my child in a better place.”
It’s a common wish, but Joseph is in almost uncharted territory, even if Uruguay is doing something about it. The UN just started pulling together paternity claim statistics last year. And they show only 19 substantiated paternity claims against UN peacekeeping personnel around the world from 2010 through 2012. An independent report suggests there were many more claims before the UN began recording cases. And many mothers aren’t making claims because there isn’t a known system for doing so. The Port Salut women were only brought to the attention of the UN because of an American journalist’s reporting on them in 2011.
The CDU’s Roy says this is an area that needs improvement. “You cannot expect a woman living in the middle of Congo, for example, to be able to file a claim for recognition of paternity and then child support in a court on another continent,” he says, “but it’s a situation with which we’ve got to deal.”
And for those who do manage to make that claim, things don’t look promising.
A UN report from earlier this year says, “To the best of the Organization’s knowledge, there is yet to be a single paternity claim acknowledged through judicial actions in any troop- or police-contributing country.”
This story was done in partnership with Public Radio International’s The World.