In 2013, Muslim Seleka rebels ousted Central African Republic’s President Francois Bozize from power. This sparked retaliation from Christian vigilante group Anti-Balaka (Anti-bullet), driving the country into war. The continued exchange between the two warring groups has led to thousands of deaths and displacements—with up to one-fifth of the population uprooted. As with most wars, women and girls are the most affected—as both as targets of rape and sexual slavery as a tactic of war.
In early October, Human Rights Watch released a report “They Said We Are Their Slaves”: Sexual Violence by Armed Groups in the Central African Republic. The 176-page Human Rights Watch report is largely informed by interviews with 296 women and girl survivors of rape and sexual slavery in the country. Their stories revealed the brutality of the attacks and the neglect in the aftermath. Fewer than half of the interviewed women had received any medical or mental healthcare. Eleven of the nearly 300 women had tried to find justice but the stigma, impunity and dysfunctional justice system made it impossible to move forward with their cases. Some of the women were blamed for the attacks or asked to identify the attackers when presenting their cases. Though six leaders from the warring groups have been identified by the women and girls, no arrests have been made.
According to international law, rape is a crime against humanity. The UN peacekeeping troupes under the name MINUSCA have been in the country to maintain peace and ensure no civilian lives are lost, as well as help in setting up a special criminal court to hear cases and arrest those responsible. As this process that began in 2015 drags on, many of the women and girls who survived rape—sometimes in front of their children—and sexual slavery have contracted HIV, been abandoned by their husbands, suffer from depression and suicidal ideations and face stigma in their communities.
As a rape survivor, I relate to what the women are going through. I experienced being shut down by the incident and felt helpless, especially when I faced lots of victim blaming. But like them, I too decided to speak out and my voice gave me power to not only heal but also to spark healing journeys for many other women in my country who were silently suffering due to sexual violence.
This is what needs to happen now: In the current interventions focused on stopping the war, the definition of peace should be expanded beyond the absence of war to encompass creating safe spaces for women to heal and thrive. This can only be achieved if the women are seen as more than just objects and weapons of war used to spite the different warring camps, but as humans whose rights were violated and who need holistic healing.
As the special criminal court continues to be set up, it is paramount that the regional and international bodies that are sending peacekeepers to the country provide witness protection and also look at the psychological well-being of the women and girls, especially as the nearly 300 cases documented by the Human Rights Watch group are a fraction of the crimes committed in the country. Having worked with various stakeholders in the gender based violence field in Kenya under the UN Women-led African Unite Kenya banner, I know that arrests and justice to victims is just one part of the healing journey, the victims and survivors need to be treated for the trauma they have gone through. If this doesn’t happen, they may develop mental health conditions that can lead to disability if interventions are not readily available, something I experienced first-hand when my initially unchecked trauma was diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Thankfully, proper help has put me in a better place today and that is something every survivor deserves.
I also know the power of having the right information and support as well as a seat at the table where matters affecting those of us who have gone through violence and live with mental health conditions are discussed. That is the power and rights the women in Central African Republic need, not only the right to health care and psychosocial support but also the right to information and the right to participate in hearings and decision-making meetings.
During the civil war in Liberia Christian and Muslim women came together under the leadership of Leymah Gbowee to form the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace and stage non-violent protests. Their resilience led to the end of a 14-year civil war and later helped elect President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the country’s first female president.
When the women in Liberia came together, they made the change. The women and girls in Central Africa Republic not only need help to heal from traumas, but to feel that they can make a change. Then they can start the process of not just taking back their own power, but their country, too.