Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, meant to raise awareness of the fact that women around the world are subject to rape, domestic violence and other forms of violence. In fact, violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights; an estimated 1 in 3 women and girls will experience violence in their lifetime. The day also aims to highlight that the scale and true nature of the issue is often hidden.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), communities have been increasingly exposed to attacks by multiple armed groups since the rebel alliance Seleka overthrew the president in March. Looting, acts of physical violence, arbitrary killings, rape, and abductions are carried out with impunity; women and girls are especially vulnerable. Natacha (32) describes when armed men attacked her village:
“Everyone tried to escape; those who couldn’t were attacked. If they saw a woman they wanted they just took her. If she had a child, it was just thrown to the side. Thirty people were abducted that day, including 12 women and girls as young as seven.”
International Medical Corps recently held discussion groups with women from six remote communities in eastern CAR, during which women spoke of the threat of sexual violence by armed actors as one of their on-going and most pressing concerns. Fear of attacks continues to restrict women from accessing their farmland, collecting water or reaching healthcare services. The women said they do not go anywhere alone; they always go in a group.
The women also explained how in the event of sexual assault, survivors could be discriminated against and marginalized from the community; they would not take a victim to a clinic or hospital due to the stigma associated with rape. In most cases the family brings the daughter to the leader of the village to deal with the problem and in some cases the person who has committed the act has to take the woman as a wife.
In addition to attacks by armed groups, women and girls are also at risk of physical and sexual violence by their partners and other men in the community, as well as early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation. In this part of CAR there is a deeply-rooted tradition called ‘Amschilini’, which is institutionalised by the local authorities. It compels girls at the age of puberty to marry in order to prevent the dishonour of the family/community by sexual relations outside of marriage.
Today, International Medical Corps initiated its 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, which (ending on 10 December, Human Rights Day) is commemorated around the world, providing individuals and groups a chance to mobilize and call attention to the urgent need to end violence against women and girls.
International Medical Corps is working closely with its Protection Assistants, Protection Focal Points and the local communities in Vakaga and Haute-Kotto prefectures in northeastern CAR to organize marches, events, and discussions surrounding human rights, in particular the prevention of gender-based violence.
In addition, International Medical Corps consultants will be conducting assessments of the capacity of communities and health care facilities to prevent and respond to cases of gender-based violence and conduct training in psychosocial support.
In the village of Iramou, the women said “We need to inform everyone on the importance of women and girls in the community, and inform our men on how to protect, instead of mistreat, women and girls. We need to train community leaders, religious leaders, women, men, boys, and girls that certain behaviors are not allowed in this community.”