Source: The Guardian
Women escaping violence in Ivory Coast have been raped and sexually abused. These women will need long-term support so they can help re-establish peace and revive their communities.


Patients at an International Rescue Committee-supported community clinic in Lofa county, Liberia
   Patients at an International Rescue Committee-supported community clinic in Lofa
county, Liberia. Photograph: Rebecca Balis/International Rescue Committee

Béatrice's* 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 to Liberia in recent months – to escape the violence tearing across their country and, like these women, from rape.

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 Chechnya and in Sierra Leone, Burma and Pakistan. It's happening again.

Hundreds of Ivorian women I have met in the past few days – those taking refuge in camps, transit centres and elsewhere in Liberia – are speaking about what happened to them so that the International Rescue Committee can form its assessment of the experiences of women fleeing Ivory Coast. Many described running from battles, being chased from their homes, becoming separated from their children and watching their husbands and other family being murdered.

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 Liberia to let Liberian men have you? We are going to enjoy you first.' And then they raped us both," she said.

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 Liberia, their number one reason was fear of being raped or forced into sexual slavery. "When it is happening to your friends, you don't wait around to see if it will happen to you," one woman told me. "Memories of the first civil war are still vivid," said another. During Ivory Coast's 2002-04 civil war, rape and sexual violence were widely used as weapons against women.

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 Ivory Coast have recorded a fourfold increase in the number of survivors of sexual violence seeking help. The armed men who are responsible for these attacks are from different ethnic groups or even rival political factions and such abuse is widespread at checkpoints, where many fleeing women are forced to strip while their possessions are seized.

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.

In Ivory Coast, sexual violence is a neglected issue. The humanitarian response to this emergency is hampered by conflict, but is also severely underfunded. The United Nations is far from reaching its fundraising targets, in particular for protection programmes, which include those addressing sexual violence. The previous civil wars in Ivory Coast and Liberia also show that women and girls continue to be at risk long after political battles are won. This is why we need a co-ordinated and comprehensive response that addresses the needs of survivors, but also invests in prevention, education, the rule of law as well as tackling the causes of sexual violence.

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.

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