Large numbers of women have been raped, sexually assaulted, beaten and abducted in Ivory Coast, according to a humanitarian aid organization.
The International Rescue Committee [IRC] is calling on the international community to “ramp up” support programs for victims of gender-based violence [GBV] “to address the needs of the humanitarian disaster.”
Liz Pender, the group’s women’s protection expert, is meeting with Ivorian women who’ve sought safety and shelter in Ivory Coast. “The reports I’m hearing are horrific,” she said.
Pender is currently in the Liberian town of Ganta in Nimba County, where many thousands of refugees have settled.
“The reason why we’re using words like ‘pervasive’ is, first of all we know, unfortunately, from years of experience that rape and sexual violence are a defining feature of every emergency, particularly those involving conflict,” she said.
First hand accounts
IRC conducted a number of focus groups in both Nimba County and Grand Gedeh, which has seen a big influx of late of Ivoirian refugees. Some 300 women took part.
“Just on the first day,” Pender said, “I had a total of almost 26 women and girls disclose that they had been raped as they were crossing or during the fighting. That is extraordinary. I mean I have never had that happen in 10 years of doing this work.”
The figure of 26 is believed to be just a small fraction of the actual number of victims.
“Numbers are actually not that meaningful when you’re working on GBV because so many survivors do not come forward. So for every one case that you know about there are so many more that you don’t know about. But when you have something like 26 women disclose in one day, it’s just unheard of,” she said.
Often women refuse to reveal they’ve been raped, fearing reprisals from their attackers or rejection by their families.
Why come forward?
“It also indicates to me that sexual violence is so common now – has become almost normalized – that women feel more comfortable disclosing about it because it’s happening to so many women and girls in their community. I mean that, in and of itself, is alarming,” she said.
In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, rape has been used as a weapon of war for many years. Thousands of women, girls, men and boys have been raped by armed groups. Rape is a terror weapon that subdues communities. But does that hold true for Ivory Coast?
“I don’t know that we’ve had the opportunity to really do a contextual analysis on that. I can just tell you anecdotally that sexual violence is happening and it’s happening frequently,” she said. “It’s a powerful weapon. It destroys a family. It destroys an individual. It compromises a community’s ability to function.”
Pender adds, “Rape by definition is an act of force. It’s an act of power.”
A mere child
The youngest reported victim of rape in the Ivory Coast crisis is a seven- year-old girl in Yamoussoukro.
“I have heard here in Liberia of young girls also being targeted, but not as young as seven,” she said.
The IRC says it’s also heard accounts of armed groups abducting women and girls for up to one week, forcing them to be sexual slaves.
One woman told the IRC, “If you are good, they will eventually let you go. But mostly when they get tired of you, they exchange you with their friends. And when they are done, they might kill you.”
The International Rescue Committee says it supports a “network of medical professionals, counselors and women’s groups” that helps abuse victims.
The IRC uses what’s called a survivor-centered approach. So what you have is a very, very strong emphasis, first on health care, but also on emotional and psycho-social support. And then we’re also doing our best to implement what we consider to be primary prevention activities. It’s about stopping gender based violence, sexual violence, from happening in the now,” Pender said.
Some women are forced to do sex work to raise money to survive or to help their families survive. It’s known as survival sex. Training them in income-generating activities means they don’t have to “sell their bodies” to get what they need.
Window of opportunity
“The priority is to ensure that survivors of sexual violence get access to health services within a very small 72-hour window. Because within that 72-hour window we can get them emergency contraception. We can get them post-exposure prophylaxis, STI treatment, various vaccinations that they use at the same time that we’re also focusing on their emotional support.”
Post-exposure prophylaxis has been used to try to prevent HIV infection after rapes by administrating anti-retroviral drugs.