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African Women Fight Back Against Conflict Rape

In armed conflicts in West and Central Africa, soldiers and rebels terrorize women with rape and other sexual violence, as tools of war. In refugee camps, women face violence, too.

A group of women has been congregating in Liberia's capital, rain or shine, for several years now, praying for a better future.

One woman says one goal is to end the shameless pattern of rape that prevailed during the recent war.

"During the war, women were raped by our own sons, by our husbands, and many other things women went through. Women have been denied," she said.

Women, who outnumbered male voters in post-war elections in Liberia, helped choose Africa's first female elected head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

In an interview with VOA, the president-elect said she would make it a priority to make sure rapists are punished.

"Rape has been established as a crime against humanity," said Ms. Sirleaf. "We are going to strengthen the courts and the legal system to enforce persecution of anybody who commits rape."

Liberia's transitional parliament recently passed a rape law, calling for sentences of between seven years and life imprisonment depending on the severity of the case.

Previously, there was no specific legislation against rape, although gang rape was considered an offense. Gang rape is now punishable by death.

During the war, unpaid and drugged fighters - many of them teenagers - were encouraged to, in the words of their commanders, pay themselves by looting and raping.

At this noisy camp of refugees in Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, escapees of war are washing their laundry by hand. Many of the women are rape victims, but are reticent to tell their story.

Social worker Fanta Nifaboum helps both Ivorians - victims of their own civil war - and refugees from neighboring countries, who came here when Ivory Coast was stable.

She says even with her, women are slow to open up, about being victims of rape.

"These cases are very, very difficult sometimes to know. We can be informed sometimes when they are sick and after some interviews, after some months. It is not everybody, in the first time, who can explain the situation, the real problem they are facing," she explained. "It is with the investigation, time by time, when they are satisfied for some material help, they can start explaining."

She says, unfortunately in Ivory Coast, many displaced women and refugees also become victims of rape in what are supposed to be relief camps, because of precarious conditions.

"We received some women who had been raped and we took them for medical care and we did what we can do," she added.

One rape victim who did share her story was Allaine Twivingue, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

She says she was raped, beaten and tortured when fighting started in her country during the 1990s. But she says, she forgives the rapists. She says forgiving them is what makes her human again.