DAKAR (TrustLaw) – Sexual violence and abuse against women in Ivory Coast have risen sharply after this year’s post-election unrest, but few cases are being reported and most victims are unable to access healthcare, rights activists said.
One 34-year-old woman described how she was raped for one hour in the Koweit neighbourhood of the West African country’s main town Abidjan, by a soldier of Republican Force of Ivory Coast (FRCI), a report released on Thursday by Human Rights Watch said.
“He threw me on a mattress and told me to open my legs,” she said of the soldier from pro-Ouattara forces. “I begged him to let me go, but he struck me and told me to shut up. He forced himself on me, and he raped me,” the woman said.
“He was violent the whole time, by the time he finished I was bleeding from between my legs,” she added. “After he finished abusing me, he had his Kalash [rifle] on him and he tried to ram it into me. I closed my legs and it smashed into my thigh, a mark is still there. He laughed and said ‘well done’ and walked out of the room.”
There has been widespread sexual violence against some ethnic groups from both political sides as well as opportunistic sexual violence related to looting, Monika Bakayoko-Topolska, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) gender-based violence coordinator in Ivory Coast, told TrustLaw.
“Either they (abused women) are scared of reprisal from the perpetrators who are often armed or they just don’t have the money or the courage to tell their ordeal and be rejected by their families and communities,” she said.
The fighting has raged between forces loyal to President Alassane Ouattara and troops and militia loyal to former president Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to step down after U.N.-certified results showed he had lost a November 2010 poll.
Ivorian authorities say more than 3,000 people have been killed in the five months of violence, while international aid agencies have reported sexual violence and unlawful killing continuing well after Gbagbo was arrested in April by FRCI.
The IRC says the presence of militias and harassment at road blocks also makes it difficult for survivors and others to access healthcare. Also, many doctors and social workers are no longer there because they have fled the violence.
“In Abidjan some of the social centres that provide psychosocial care are still occupied by armed forces so the social workers who were providing this assistance to women are no longer able to do it,” Bakayoko-Topolska said.
Aid agencies such as the IRC, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Red Cross have been responding by providing support to existing health centres in the country.
Although the fiercest fighting has ended, many women in camps for displaced people, especially in the west of the country, say they fear going back home because their villages have been looted, burnt and rife with rape.
Tens of thousands of people were uprooted from their homes in the country’s west, where rights groups say massacres were committed, and mass graves have been found.
However, Bakayoko-Topolska warned that staying in camps is not safe either, because some are highly overcrowded and pose risks of sexual violence too.
Many women and girls who lost their belongings and livelihoods because of the destruction in the crisis are at risk of prostitution or sexual exploitation as they seek to make ends meet, she added.
“We hear quite a lot about young girls having armed boyfriends,” she said. “They are raped by the men’s colleagues or are kind of borrowed or given by their boyfriends to somebody else (against their will),” she said.