A human rights group is accusing pro-government and rebel forces in the Ivory Coast of subjecting thousands of women and girls to rape and other forms of sexual assault. In a report issued Thursday, Human Rights Watch says although both sides in Ivory Coast's conflict have agreed to a peace accord earlier this year, it fails to address the widespread sexual violence that has taken place in the country or the need to bring those responsible to account.  Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West Africa Bureau in Dakar.

The report's author, Etelle Higonnet, documents the cases of more than 150 women in Ivory Coast who say they have suffered rape, slavery and sex bondage by rebel or government forces. 

Higonnet says there is no doubt many other women in Ivory Coast have been sexually abused, but she says they are afraid to say anything.

"Women are terrified, terrified that if they speak out in public to ask for justice, or ask for medical services, or psychological services they will end up divorced, homeless, abandoned by their families, rejected by their communities, ostracized," she said.

One problem is that it costs $60 in Ivory Coast to get medical certification of a rape.  The report recommends making the certification free so women can pursue legal action more easily.

Other recommendations in the Human Rights Watch report include a government-led inquiry into sexual violence in Ivory Coast and an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to determine whether people can be brought to trial for war crimes.

Higonnet says that until President Laurent Gbagbo and Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, who fought for years against President Gbagbo as leader of New Forces rebels, speak out forthrightly against sexual abuses carried out by their supporters, sexual violence will continue unpunished.

There has not yet been a formal government response to the report.

The head of the Africa section of the U.N. Women's Fund, Micheline Ravololonarisoa, says the women's ministry in the Ivory Coast government has in the past tried to combat sexual violence. But she says even with political will, it takes time.

"We cannot talk about violence in a linear way [narrow way].  There is the whole issue of women's status. It is not something we can change overnight," she added.

Ivory Coast's civil war erupted in 2002 and divided the country for almost five years. President Gbagbo and Mr. Soro signed a peace accord in March aimed at reuniting the country.

Nationwide elections, called for in the March accord, have been postponed twice.  They are now scheduled for early 2008.