This post was originally published on Ms. Magazine Blog.
Former President Laurent Gbagbo was finally arrested this week, and many seem to think this will bring an end to the conflict that’s riddled Ivory Coast for the past months. But for Ivorian women, among the more than one million displaced by the fighting, this is not the case. As the situation deteriorated from chaos to full-fledged crisis, Ivorian women went from being the drivers of political protest to survivors of sexual violence.
This week, I spoke with Elizabeth Pender, a gender-based violence (GBV) Technical Advisor for IRC , a humanitarian group that addresses crises worldwide. She’s stationed on the Liberia-Ivory Coast border, where thousands of Ivorians are flooding into refugee camps every day.
Pender conveyed reports from women of gang rapes, rapes of entire families, and sexual slavery as women and girls are “taken as wives” for weeks at a time. “These women have experienced things that we cannot even imagine – and many for the second time.” The collective memory of rape and violence from the last Ivorian war, in 2004, is still fresh. In fact, the recollection of “what happened last time,” and threat of new violence has been a driving force for many girls and women to flee.
While IRC and others work to mitigate the risk of further violence, arriving in refugee camps does not necessarily mean safety for girls and women who remain continuously vulnerable. Collecting water or firewood can be dangerous, and even the very security guards stationed to protect women can become the latest perps.
Who is committing the sexual violence? One the one hand, it doesn’t matter. On the other hand, it does. News reports have painted Alassane Ouattara in perhaps too rosy a light, condemning pro-Gbagbo forces almost unilaterally for war crimes. There are also a number of reports that put the blame squarely on Ouattara. Humanitarian agencies like IRC, rightly so, stay out of the politics and instead take a survivor-centered approach.
Yet political camps, and even the global media, often utilize reports of GBV as a strategy to damn one’s opponent. It’s as if accusing Gbagbo’s camp of systematic rape somehow exonerates Ouattara’s camp from abuses when, in reality, women and girls survive violence from every party and at every level.
It is well-documented that women and girls are exponentially more vulnerable to sexual violence in crisis, whether it’s an earthquake or a civil war. Long after fighting has ceased, and the media has forgotten the names of opposing parties, survivors remain survivors because sexual violence cannot be undone.
IRC holds focus groups for Ivorian women, offering safe spaces for women to voice their experiences. In one session, Pender says, 20 women revealed they had been raped. “This level of reporting is extraordinary, and this indicates that this issue has become normalized in many ways.”
Do we take for granted that sexual violence is an integral part of every conflict? What are the implications of this? “Issues of gender-based violence so often get lost in the shuffle, and we’re trying to convey that addressing these issues is a life-saving initiative,” says Pender. Governments and global bodies can no longer be surprised by increased sexual violence, and given the resources available, it has become inexcusable to not be prepared. Sexual violence should be stemmed before it starts.
The management of sexual violence remains a challenge, however, and access adequate mental and physical health care in particular. Of the 20 women raped, says Pender, none had sought or had been able to access health care. Whether these services – such as emergency contraception, post-exposure prophylaxis, pregnancy testing, contraception, or even just a basic check-up – are available is one major issue. Whether women will seek them is another.
For this reason, the magnitude of sexual violence is difficult to ascertain. “For every one case you hear about, there are 10 or 20 you don’t.” Pender suggests that in an environment of injustice and cruelty, you have to celebrate the small victories: to identify even one survivor, counsel and support her, provide her with health care services. “There is a lot we can do. We want women to know rape doesn’t have to be the end.”
Learn more or support IRC’s work in Ivory Coast and worldwide.