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Even when she dreams, Francine can't escape the militia fighters who gang-raped her two years ago during a raid on her remote village in northeastern Congo. The attack changed the course of her life.

Because of it, Francine, now 16, was shunned by her family and sent to live with her aunt at a refugee camp in the relative safety of Bunia, the regional capital. She can no longer expect a dowry. For that matter, it's unlikely that she'll ever find a boy willing to marry her. And she worries she may have contracted HIV during the rapes, but she refuses to get tested.

From such a comedown, it wasn't difficult for Francine to consider sex work a temptation in war-beleaguered Democratic Republic of Congo, where many women and girls are quietly being driven to "survival sex" by extreme poverty and lingering instability two years after Congo's war officially ended.

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"My first time with the UN soldiers was not my choice," Francine said in Swahili. She is thin and looks too small for her age. "I went with an older woman who, without my knowing, had already negotiated a price with some Moroccan soldiers to have sex with me. So, when they were finished with me, they gave me some milk, which I didn't drink."

Francine's drift into the sex trade is not uncommon, especially in the lawless Ituri region where sexual violence and exploitation, mainly by roving militias, is so widespread that the line between forced and negotiated sex is blurred. Many women and girls, impoverished and demoralized by Congo's war, increasingly are unable to resist the pressure to trade sex for food, money or protection.

Stepping into this situation are the United Nations peacekeepers, thousands of whom began arriving in Congo five years ago to protect the population from atrocities meted out by various rebel groups seeking to control the region's mineral wealth. The UN troops, mostly from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Morocco, South Africa and Uruguay, are widely perceived as having money to spare.

The local women and girls often approach the troops under the pretext of selling bananas or cassava patties, and then negotiate a price for sex, which usually amounts to a dollar. In Bunia, one U.S. dollar is so standard a rate for sex with UN soldiers that sex workers here are called "one-dollar girls."

"We know there are some cases of rape, but more than that, there are the cases of prostitution, which can be justified by the war," said Petronila Vaweka, Bunia's soft-spoken district commissioner. "Even some housewives are obliged to go make prostitution with the soldiers because, after war, only soldiers have money. So they go to get money to feed their families."

But the easy availability of Congolese women and girls even as young as 12 has fuelled one of the UN's worst sex scandals, with dozens of peacekeepers accused of rape or having sexual intercourse with underage girls. One UN official, a senior French national, is facing trial in France for allegedly molesting as many as 100 Congolese children, some acts of which he had photographed and videotaped.

The allegations are undermining an already difficult UN mission, often criticized by Congolese for inaction as rebel militias raid one village after another in northeastern Congo, adding to a death toll of about 50,000 since 1999.

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Anxious to quell international outrage over the scandal, the UN is trying to enforce a strict curfew for its troops. It also forbids them from having sexual contact with local women. The "zero tolerance" policy is strongly endorsed by the U.S. Congress, which has threatened to withhold funding for any UN operation tainted by sexual scandal.

In the past year, the UN has investigated about 150 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by its soldiers. Two weeks ago, the organization fired one employee, and six others have been suspended without pay.

Top UN officials have called for predeployment training on sexual exploitation and abuse for their peacekeepers, most of whom are drawn from developing nations of central Asia, Africa and Latin America, where women usually are unable to shed the mantle of tradition that renders them less powerful than men. Also, many of the soldiers come from countries such as South Africa and Ethiopia, where HIV rates in the military are as high as 40 per cent.

"We are looking at how we can address the problem, not only internally, but also within the context of a war situation, abject poverty and people who come in with some type of leverage," said Kemal Saiki, a spokesman for the UN mission in Congo, known by the French acronym MONUC. "What is needed is an unambiguous policy and a systematic education approach."

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