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MSF Offers Rape Counseling to Hundreds of Victims in Bangui

A rising number of women have experienced sexual violence since the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) descended into a spiral of sectarian conflict in 2013. Many are left with lifelong trauma. But the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders has opened centers for rape victims to give care and psychological support in several locations in the capital Bangui.

This young woman came in time. She was raped less than 72 hours ago so she still has a chance to be given treatment to prevent HIV/AIDS and an unwanted pregnancy.

Nurse Sylvie Gonekra said most women, however, come much, much later after their assault.

“For women in the Central African Republic, a rape is shameful. So they don't want to talk about it. So sometimes women are raped but don't come to the hospital. They remain in their neighborhood, sad and alone. They shut themselves in," said Gonekra.

Data on sexual violence in the C.A.R. is scarce while the need for help for women is great.

It has been nearly two years since a coup sparked a bloody sectarian conflict. An interim government and international peacekeepers are working to restore some order, but violence continues.

To try to begin to address the trauma, Doctors Without Borders -- also known by its French acronym MSF -- opened a facility in July in the capital to deal with both the medical and psychological needs of rape victims.

In the last five months, they have received more than 500 victims. They have since opened a second center in Bangui as a radio and poster awareness campaign reaches more people needing help.

Counselors say the first step it to let people talk about their trauma.

“I think about my husband all the time. He ran away from the house as the Seleka stormed the town and killed the men. I haven't heard of him in a year. I think he's dead by now," said a rape victim.

To reassure, to calm and to listen. But before that can happen, psychologist Roselyne Menant says the first challenge is to help victims understand what a psychologist is, in a country where this is not commonplace.

“There is no training to become a psychologist here. They merely do not exist. I'm here to make them understand that there are visible wounds, on the body, but also invisible ones, inside the head," said Menant.

Menant says she sees women of all ages, sometimes children, and a few men. The victims are marginalized by the stigma of rape and they have no one to talk to.

Denise, not her real name, has been coming for counseling for two weeks and she says it is helping.

"After I was assaulted, my husband rejected me. I was totally devastated. And Roselyne gave me good advice. She said that it wasn't my fault, that I didn't break my marriage promise to be faithful by being raped," said Denise.

Aside from individual consultations, MSF has put in place a support group for victims to share their experiences with each other.

"One of the good things about this support group is that the women, that are all victims of sexual violence, can get together and talk. And they all told me ‘I thought I was alone," said Menant.

There are currently only two rape counseling centers in the country -- both run by MSF in Bangui.