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COTE D'IVOIRE: Fear and silence impede services for rape survivors

Photo: Reuters\Ruben Sprich
Fear of reprisal means soldiers responsible for sexual violence are often not reported
MAN, 28 August 2006 (PlusNews) - When soldiers are responsible for sexual violence, fear of reprisal largely explains the culture of silence that prevents families and communities from reporting them. The most difficult task for humanitarian workers in Man in western Cote d'Ivoire is identifying the victims of sexual violence so they can be protected from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.

A failed coup in September 2002 sparked months of civil war in Cote d'Ivoire, eventually splitting the country into a rebel-held north and government-run south. In the west, where several thousand militias helped the army fight the rebels, many women and girls experienced sexual violence by soldiers.

"Sexual violence was not as rife before [the war]. The rape of minors started with the crisis," said Albert Seu, chairman of IDE Afrique, an NGO that supports 750 people, especially children and widows from Man and Danané, a small town 80km to the west.

Three years after the rape of their daughter, 8, "they [her parents] wanted a document because there was a court case. They did not understand the consequences of the rape of a child, nor did they understand what could have been done to avoid HIV infection", said Dr Louis Kakudji, medical coordinator of the international humanitarian organisation, Médicins sans Frontières (MSF), which has run the hospital in Man for four years.

"There are many soldiers here. They have the strength and the arms and we prefer to stay out of it," he said. "The situation is still very unstable. There must be many cases of violence but we have not seen any of them - does that mean that there are no such cases?"

Post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) - a course of antiretroviral drugs to prevent HIV infection - is only effective if administered within 72 hours of rape.

A local humanitarian worker, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed. "Rape is common today because there is a legal vacuum," he said. "Who will punish them? There is nobody here to protect the population." MSF frequently deals with the often-disastrous consequences of clandestine abortions.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an American emergency relief organisation, works with rebel soldiers to make them aware of human rights and responsible behaviour, and has also set up community centres offering protection and a livelihood to about 80 female rape survivors.

Despite the IRC's efforts, rape cases are rarely reported and many women still suffer the effects of atrocities committed during the civil war. Young women who became pregnant as a result of rape tend to suffer the most stress and discrimination. "We see post-traumatic stress," said IRC psychologist, Ernest Anda. "The girls manage their stress themselves as best they can."

Families impoverished by years of conflict often push their daughters into risky sexual relationships, and violence and trauma are also covered up. "There is clear ambivalence in the families," said Sister Genevieve, of the Notre Dame Shelter in Man, which houses 150 girls aged between 12 and 20. "Girls give in easily and there are many parents who encourage it - it brings food into the house and the possibility of a guarantee for the future."

Some of the girls at the shelter are orphans; others were rejected by their families and communities for sleeping with soldiers. Only one in five has ever attended school, but 30 of them have children. Now their babies are cared for in a crèche near the classrooms.

The shelter did what it could with scarce resources, but nothing was being done to protect the girls against HIV and other STIs, said Sister Genevieve. "Nobody is helping us to look after the health of the girls. This is a big worry, because after 6 p.m. the girls leave the shelter and may once again engage in risky behaviour."

Theme(s): (IRIN) Care/Treatment - PlusNews


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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