In CAR, ‘If they saw a woman they wanted, they just took her’

By — December 5, 2013

Natacha Indzabingui is one of thousands of women hiding in the bush in the Central African Republic.

The 32-year-old told me that 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, Indzabingui said, including 12 women and girls, some as young as 7.

The UN’s IRIN news service estimates that many of the 400,000 people who have been displaced from their homes are hiding in the bush. CAR, one of the world’s poorest countries, has seen conflict since March 24, when a rebel coalition called Seleka took control of the capital, Bangui, and overthrew President François Bozize. Working for International Medical Corps in CAR, I am witnessing up close a complex humanitarian and political crisis, which threatens to destabilize the whole region.

Women wait at a mobile IMC clinic in Boungou village in Haute-Kotto Prefecture. (Laura Jepson)

Looting, rape, recruitment of child soldiers, arbitrary killings, roadblocks, and abductions are carried out by multiple armed groups with impunity. The Seleka forces are believed responsible for much of the violence against the civilians, including of rape and other forms of sexualized violence, but the statistics are hard to gather, according to human rights organizations. People are living in a climate of fear and intimidation.

International Medical Corps recently held discussions with women from six remote communities in the eastern part of the country. The women spoke of the threat of sexualized violence by armed soldiers as one of their most pressing concerns.

“We live in fear, thinking that we can be attacked at any moment,” one said.

Indeed, fear of these attacks hinders women from accessing their land, collecting water or firewood, or reaching health care services. The women said they never go anywhere alone—they always go in a group. In addition to these attacks, women and girls are also at risk of physical and sexualized violence by their partners, family members, and other men in the community.

The women also said they were unlikely to seek medical care or judicial support so they could avoid being discriminated against or marginalized by their communities. In CAR, as in many countries, the stigma associated with gender-based violence fuels a culture of silence and denial.

Common practices such as early or forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, also endanger the health and well-being of women and girls. In the northeastern part of the country, community leaders say, a deeply rooted tradition called “amschilini” compels girls at the age of puberty to marry in order to prevent the dishonor of the family or community by engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. The practice has been institutionalized by local authorities.

Christian Mulamba, CAR director of International Medical Corps, said that the priority of the organization is to provide “timely medical care and psychosocial support to survivors of gender-based violence” as the risk steadily increases.

The organization has been working in the northeastern region of the country since May 2007, providing basic health care, nutrition care, and protection for internally displaced persons and communities in conflict-ridden parts of the country.

The majority of health facilities lack the supplies, equipment, and appropriately trained staff to adequately respond to cases of sexualized violence. Legislation on sexualized violence is not well known or applied, which forces survivors and their families to rely on traditional justice systems—for example, consulting with village elders, community chiefs, and religious leaders. In some cases, the outcome is that the victims are forced to marry their perpetrators.

The risk of violence is “exacerbated by harmful traditional practices, a breakdown of social fabrics, noncompliance of armed groups to national and international laws, and a collapse of civil institutions to reinforce justice to acceptable standards,” IMC’s Mulamba said.

When asked what could be done to create a safer environment for women and girls, this was the resounding response from a group in the village of Iramou:

All that we are asking is the government help us put in place a system that can stop all these bad things. … Everyone needs to be aware of the importance of women and girls in the community, and inform our men on how to protect, instead of mistreat, women and girls. … We must train community leaders, religious leaders, women, men, boys, and girls that certain behaviors are not allowed in this community.

This call for peace is crucial. The Central African Republic has already been called a “failed state.” And if the international community keeps ignoring the violence within the country, the threat of destabilization to the region will continue to increase.