‘Dawn of a new hope’ for whom? Systemic violence and impunity plague women in Ivory Coast

By — March 6, 2012

Laurent Gbagbo should have gone quietly. After a decade as President of Ivory Coast, mostly everyone—Ivorians and outsiders—agreed that he had lost the November 2010 election to Alasanne Outtarra. But he didn’t go and certainly not quietly, instead plunging the country into sinister chaos until his arrest in April. By UN estimates, citizen militias back by both men resulted in 3,000 killed and approximately 1 million displaced, with 70,000 still residing across the border of neighboring Liberia.

Mariet, 30, with four of her children in the Bahn camp for refugees in Liberia, where they fled from Ivory Coast. (UK Department for International Development)

Ivorian women were initially a strong component of democracy activists calling for Gbagbo’s swift removal, at the front line of protests for peace and free elections. Yet as chaos grew, they quickly became subsumed by it. Sexualized violence, as it is always amplified in crises, spread like wildfire. Last April, I spoke with Liz Pender, a gender-based violence technical advisor for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian group. Pender, speaking from refugee camp on the Liberia border, relayed reports of gang rapes, rapes of entire families, and sexual slavery as women and girls were “taken as wives” for weeks on end. “These women have experienced things that we cannot even imagine—and many for the second time,” she said, referring to the violence endured during the last major Ivorian conflict, 2004’s civil war.

It’s been about one year since the chaos died down, at least politically. Laurent Gbagbo has been charged with crimes against humanity and awaits his fate in The Hague. Meanwhile, President Outtara has begun his much-anticipated reign, calling it "the dawn of a new hope," and has vowed to investigate last year’s election pandemic (though that’s not looking very promising).

Yet survivors of conflict-driven sexual violence are still struggling to move on. While local and international groups have continued providing medical and psychosocial care, few avenues to justice exist.

“In terms of legal services for survivors, there’s hardly anything,” said Monika Bakayoko-Topolska, Gender-Based Violence Coordinator for the IRC in Ivory Coast. “The legal system in Ivory Coast totally fell apart during the crisis. Women have no access to a tribunal, and not much access to the justice system. A woman may go to the police station to make a complaint, and if she isn’t turned away, she will be under a lot of pressure to withdraw her accusation.”

A limp legal system and the general aversion of women in Ivory Coast to even attempt to seek justice is a problem that IRC is trying to zero in on. Bakayoko-Topolska says that sexualized violence related to last year’s election continues to some extent, but IRC and others are now looking further up the causal chain—focusing on the acceptance of violence as a way of life. Sexualized violence tends to spike during moments of crisis, and the persistence and acceptance of domestic violence and violence more broadly creates an enabling environment for this.

“[These types of violence] are very much connected, related to the lack of balance of power between men and women,” said Bakayoko-Topolska. “Women have a lower status than men, even though the constitution recognizes women’s equal rights. Domestic violence is very accepted as a way of educating and controlling women. Sexual violence is then possible because we don’t see women as protected and supported by the general community.”

On Monday in Abidjan, IRC launched “Breaking the Silence,” a nationwide multimedia social-marketing campaign to change social norms around violence and encourage greater reporting of violence. In 2010, a community survey by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that 47 percent of women (and 16 percent of men) had experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives, yet fewer than 2 percent had ever attempted to officially report it. Shame, humiliation, and not knowing who to speak to about the violence were reported as key reasons for non-disclosure.

The campaign is a direct volley back to these social factors, seeking to empower women to no longer accept violence as the status quo, while inspiring men to be leaders of change as well. Messages tailored to men include “protect women, it is your business” and “we are a team against violence,” while those for women are “brave woman, stand up against violence!” and “there is no place for violence in our home!” IRC hopes to see an immediate increase in the number of domestic violence cases reported.

“I don’t think we’ll have a huge impact on social norms after six months, but it’s a seed we are planting—not accepting violence as part of life.” said Bakayoko-Topolska.

The biggest challenge may not be changing social norms, however, but rather a legal framework too weak to flex its muscles on women’s rights if it were asked to. Good-intentioned laws to protect women do exist, but they’re shot through with loopholes, leaving ample room for misogynistic interpretation, or are useless all together. A law against rape doesn’t include a mention marital rape, nor does it define what “rape” is. Physical violence is also outlawed, but partner violence, so common in Ivory Coast, is not included. Bakayoko-Topolska can rattle off at least half a dozen other examples of “nice try, but no cigar” efforts to address issues like female genital cutting and remarriage after widowhood. “Women don’t seek justice because they know the law against it is so broad that people will turn them away from the police station,” she says.

It’s not a surprise, then, that for women in Ivory Coast, it remains to be seen whether a Outtarra presidency will be any better than a Gbagbo one, or any other for that matter.

“In the first months after Outtarra created a new government, there was a lot of excitement and there seemed to be a push for the improvement for women’s rights. The political speeches were very positive and encouraging, but we don’t know whether they’ll implement what they say,” said Bakayoko-Topolska.

This is the murky uphill that women’s rights groups in Ivory Coast are trying to climb. Given so many challenges, IRC’s new anti-violence campaign is perhaps a shot in the dark—but even a shot in the dark does break the silence.

(This article was first posted on RH Reality Check.)

Jessica Mack is a women's rights advocate and freelance writer based in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter: @Fleetwoodjmack.