IVORY COAST/COTE D'IVOIRE - CONFLICT & VIOLENCE - WOMEN & GIRLS AS TARGETS - RAPE. ABUSE, & PAIN - HOPES FOR PEACE
Elizabeth Pender in Liberia - April 13, 2011
Women escaping violence in
Patients at an
International Rescue Committee-supported community clinic in Lofa county,
small voice comes from a corner of a big tent in Bahn camp that is crammed
with at least 100 refugee women and girls. More than 100,000 Ivorians have fled
Béatrice, 16, disclosed the horrific abuses that she suffered only a few weeks before. But the flat tone and unemotional delivery of what she said also surprised me. "Violence was everywhere," said Beatrice. She was abducted and raped by armed men while trying to run from her home. "When they catch you, there's little you can do. If you say no, they will beat you to death."
I have met many survivors of
sexual violence. Each time I hear their stories, there is a moment when I start
questioning my ability to take in the complexities and the horror of what I am
hearing. I had these moments in Darfur and
Ivorian women I have met in the past few days – those taking refuge in camps,
transit centres and elsewhere in
Out of the 300 women who attended our discussion groups, 26 found the courage to tell us they had been raped.
These women spoke of brutal gang
rapes and sexual attacks on wives and daughters that husbands and fathers were
forced to watch, including the rape of a seven-year-old girl, of abductions and
sexual slavery. When one woman and her sister were running from their home,
they were caught by several armed men. "They said to us, 'You are going to
I asked a group to tell me the difference between sexual slavery and rape: "Sexual slavery is when he points to you and says, 'You come with me' and then he keeps you as his wife for a week," replied one woman. "Rape is when he just grabs you and takes you right away."
When asked why they fled to
The women who shared their stories represent the tip of the iceberg: for every case of rape or abuse that is reported, between two and 10 are not. Many victims fear reprisal from their perpetrators or rejection by families or communities if they come forward. So, when 26 women from one community courageously told of the horrors that they survived, we're actually talking about 50, or maybe even 250 women from this community who were raped or sexually assaulted.
Since the crisis erupted in
December, after disputed presidential elections, IRC counsellors and local
partners in six districts of
But these accounts are not uncommon. Sexual violence against women and girls has been a defining feature of the many civil conflicts in West Africa – as soon as tension rises and armed groups mobilise, women become targets. Sexual violence is a weapon, a way to punish the enemy and a means of reprisal against opposing communities and families. Victims are often the ones blamed, enduring stigma and rejection rather than justice, care and compassion. When there are high levels of sexual violence, the international community often fails to respond adequately.
That Ivorian women are speaking openly about the atrocities they've suffered offers in itself some reasons for hope. Women in West Africa are renowned for their resilience and perseverance in recovering from abuse and restoring stability to their communities. Ivorian women already have a crucial role to play in re-establishing peace and reviving their communities amid renewed ethnic and social tensions. But they need support, now and for the long term.
* The names of individuals in this blog have been changed for their protection