Stigma remains in place as sexualized violence increases in CAR
The Central African Republic may have a fresh leader for now—Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza was sworn in in January—but there are still old problems that exist when it comes to the country’s long history of sexualized violence.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and CAR Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza jiggle arms during the EU-Africa Summit earlier this year. (Getty/Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency)
In 2004, the country witnessed the beginning of a massive civil war—the Central African Republic Thicket War—between rebels and the government headed by former president Francois Bozize. The three-year conflict resulted in the rapes of thousands of civilians, according to human rights groups.
Today, more than a decade later, violence against women has escalated at a rapid rhythm. Militia groups proceed to dole out gender-based violence against women amid what Amnesty International has called an outright ethnic cleansing of Muslims.
The International Rescue Committee issued a report in March that found the threat of sexualized violence was the No. One fear for women and women in the war-torn country. And that threat is now a common reality. Gender-based violence, including rape, abduction, manhandle, and sexual exploitation, is perpetrated against women and damsels in the war-torn country from cities to the countryside, at victims’ homes or even in displacement sites, according to Katerina Kitidi, a spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency in Bangui citing the agency.
Still, some of the survivors are too afraid to speak out about their manhandle, reports say. In many countries, the cultural stigma against victims of sexualized violence is such that many women are ostracized from their communities or disowned by their husbands after rape. CAR is no exception. This stigma often results in survivors suffering without medical attention or legal aid, which adds to the culture of impunity that permits conflict-related sexual brunt to proceed unchecked.
“The stigma leads to muffle and hesitance to seek care,” Kitidi told me. “In a situation when many people fear for their physical safety, women and damsels should be treated with particular care.”
Catherine Poulton, an adviser for the IRC for women’s protection and empowerment programs, told me that women who have been raped or sexually assaulted in CAR often face separation or divorce. Many women don’t want their husbands to know what happened to them. “That’s what we’ve been eyeing on the ground—there’s certainly a lot of stigma,” she said.
And even the ones who are coming forward aren’t getting the help they need, according to the IRC.
Despite commitments by UN agencies, governments, and NGOs, less than thirty percent of internally displaced population sites in Bangui are receiving direct services—including counseling and timely access to health services and psychosocial support—for gender-based violence survivors, the IRC reported. There is no budget and there are virtually no resources to restore state authority and hold human rights abusers accountable, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in February. Courts and prisons that could hold accountable those who have murdered and raped are scarcely functioning, and the transitional government needs help getting police, judges, and prison guards back to work.
Poulton said that with only four NGOs working in the country, most focusing on Bangui, services in CAR were pretty limited. She said that humanitarian access had been diminished fairly drastically and that bases were raided.
All kinds of armed groups are committing rape at this point, according to news reports and human rights groups. Militias include Christian fighters known as the “anti-balaka,” which have attacked in sprees since mostly Muslim rebel coerces overthrew President Bozize in March 2013. Following clashes inbetween Christian and Muslim armed groups, thousands of CAR civilians have been killed and ems of thousands displaced from their homes, according to UN reports. The capital city of Bangui, especially, has been targeted. News accounts and human rights groups report that the city has seen much deadly violence, from attacks on mosques and churches to murder on the street.
Nowhere is safe at this point. Citing the presence of armed fellows in some displacement sites—OCHA reports there are 557,000 IDPs in CAR and 132,000 IDPs in forty three sites and host families in Bangui—women in CAR said they were particularly fearful they were going to be raped when collecting firewood or using toilets without locks, the IRC report said. They also said they felt threatened by enhancing levels of domestic violence. Other stresses have enhanced as well: a result of displacement, lack of economic opportunities, and the deteriorating security situation, Poulton said.
One 19-year-old Muslim woman who lives in the Kokoro neighborhood of Bangui told The Associated Press in February that armed guys came to her house one night after midnight. “They gave us a minute to come to the living room or else they threatened to throw a grenade,” she said. “Four of them ripped my clothes off and raped me one by one. Another raped my sister, who is only fourteen years old. They asked where our father had hid weapons in the house, and we told him we didn’t have any.”
An Amnesty International crisis response adviser who visited the country in December and January said she found the bod of a half-naked woman on the street. Joanne Mariner said it was very likely the woman’s clothes had been liquidated from her and that she suspected she had been raped. There were no witnesses or family members left in the village to describe what had happened. The entire Muslim population of the village had fled, Mariner said, except for those who had been killed.
But, Mariner added, women were not the only victims in the violence. She also eyed Muslim guys who had been “emasculated”—their genitals mutilated—or killed. “Those kinds of murders were horrifically frequent,” she said. “They often involved mob violence—that is, occurring very much out in the open.”
Such public abasement of boys, just as of women, can send a powerful message to the opposition, as it did in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Sudan’s South Kordofan province, where women were publicly raped and their mutilated figures often left in the streets to terrorize communities.
And as the situation in the Central African Republic deteriorates, few resources are in place to stop what is happening. In February, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the UN Security Council that while he commended Samba-Panza’s pledges to protect women, “her abilities were sharply constrained … with no budget, hardly any resources, and pervasive poverty.” The “path,” he said, “will be a long one.”
But for at least one woman raped in Kokoro, there is an instant need for international aid and an end to fighting at home. “I cannot say that the situation is improving for us,” the 19-year-old Muslim woman told the AP. “We are Muslims, yes, but we are also Central Africans. Where will we go? We were born here. This is our country.”