MSHS Student Thesis Spotlight: Safiyyah Edwards

MSHS Student Analyses Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in UN Peacekeeping Operations in Graduate Thesis

May 21, 2022

“ If there is one instance of a peacekeeper abusing a member of the civilian population they are meant to protect, that is still an immense failure on the UN’s part. Zero tolerance should mean just that: absolutely zero SEA victims.”

Safiyyah Edwards is graduating summa cum laude from our Master of Science in Humanitarian Studies (MSHS) program today. Originally from Southern California, Safiyyah fully considers New York her home since she moved here to begin her journey at Fordham University. Safiyyah graduated magna cum laude from Fordham in May of 2021, with an undergraduate degree in Political Science and International Political Economy.

As part of the requirements for the MSHS degree, Safiyyah wrote her graduate thesis, Addressing Sexual Exploitation And Abuse In Peacekeeping Operations: The United Nations’ Institutional Efforts To Effectively Increase Peacekeepers’ Protection Of Civilian Populations.

Safiyyah’s thesis analyizes the “effectiveness of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s 2003 Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse bulletin in establishing norms and measures to reform peacekeepers’ sexual misconduct in peacekeeping operations. I did this by using a comparative case design and process tracing to determine and compare the effectiveness and accountability of the UN’s investigation into the 2002 West Africa sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) cases and the 2014 Central African Republic (CAR) cases.”

Why did you choose this topic and why do you feel it is important?

Safiyyah: “I wanted to shine a light on how abuse is not just about an individual harming another person; abuse is also an institutional failure when the designated protectors fail to step in and address the harm that was done. I consciously chose to focus on child victims of abuse as our voices and accounts are often not believed or acted upon. In regards to SEA, the UN is in part responsible for these abuses when they do not hold the alleged perpetrators accountable and prevent similar harms from reoccurring.

“The UN should not need to hear more cases of peacekeepers abusing the most vulnerable members of a civilian population to know it is failing at its role to uphold human rights.

“If there is one instance of a peacekeeper abusing a member of the civilian population they are meant to protect, that is still an immense failure on the UN’s part. Zero tolerance should mean just that: absolutely zero SEA victims.”

What did you find most interesting in research for your thesis?

Safiyyah: “The most interesting part of my research was my central finding that the UN’s investigation into the 2014 CAR SEA allegations was less effective and accountable than the investigation into the 2002 West Africa SEA cases. For instance, the investigation team in the CAR case study did not revisit and reinterview the original SEA victims or child witnesses, while the investigation team did in the 2002 case study. This was a counterintuitive finding because the 2002 West Africa SEA cases predate the UN’s declaration of an institutional fight to reform peacekeepers’ behavior toward SEA through a zero-tolerance policy, codes of conduct, and disciplinary measures.”

What did you find most challenging?

Safiyyah: “The most difficult part of writing this thesis was encountering and retelling the child victims’ experiences. It was emotionally challenging because I was reading the gruesome details of the sexual violations. Even more so, it was infuriating to see how the efficacy of the UN’s investigation into the SEA cases decreased from 2002 to 2014. The UN’s inability to ensure its actions matched its verbalized commitments to combatting SEA reflects an institutional failure. A more grim realization is that UN peacekeepers may continue victimizing more children without fear of repercussions.

“Regarding the children’s experiences, I wanted to ensure I was not diminishing the children’s individual accounts of sexual abuse. I tried to honor the survivors’ voices by quoting them as much as possible.”

How do you hope your thesis will help you further your academic or career goals?

Safiyyah: “Above all, I hope this thesis adds to the conversation on how the United Nations can more effectively address sexual abuse and exploitation in peacekeeping operations. This would ultimately increase the protection of civilian populations. More importantly, when we talk about uplifting and safeguarding human rights, children should not be left out of that picture. They equally deserve protection and dignity.”

In her acknowledgements, Safiyyah writes:

“This work is dedicated to the survivors of failed systems that promised to protect us when others could not. Though the system that failed me is not linked to peacekeepers or the United Nations, I resonate with the stories of the victims I encountered in my research. To any survivor of abuse who may come upon this work: you are seen, you are heard, you are not alone. Your wounds may be invisible to the naked eye, but your pain is not lost on those of us who can advocate for change. May this writing only add to a future where abusers are promptly held accountable to prevent them from harming any more innocent people.”

Great work on your thesis, Safiyyah! Congratulations on your graduation!

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