Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Marie, Emilienne, Brigitte and Angela (last names withheld) were all raped during the conflict that gripped the Central African Republic (CAR) between 2001 and 2003, and are now HIV positive.
In 2002, scarcely three weeks after the birth of her fifth child, Angela was fleeing the fighting approaching Bangui, the capital, when the minibus in which she was travelling was stopped by rebels of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC).
"They snatched my baby from my arms and they threw him into the forest. They were armed. They ordered me to undress in front of my little boy and they raped me - there were five of them. I fainted," said the forty-year-old woman. "An elderly man found us on his way back from the fields. He found my baby ... and he tried to give me first aid with traditional remedies."
President Ange-Félix Patassé had invited the MLC to shore up his government against André Kolingba, who tried to unseat him in a bloody, abortive coup in 2001, but the fighters ran amok - looting, killing men and raping women in Ouango in the eastern part of the capital. The situation worsened in 2002 when Francois Bozize - then army chief of staff, now president - successfully seized power, and women were raped and men sodomised.
Brigitte, 30, who was trying to seek refuge in the village not far from Bangui where her parents lived, had a similar experience. "When I arrived in the village, the soldiers had already killed my father and my brother. They caught me and held me, one of them put his penis in my mouth and five others forced me to sleep with them next to my father's corpse," she said, staring blankly into the distance.
The trauma of rape was compounded when they were later told they were HIV positive. Marie, 49, who was raped by several men in her village 400km from the capital, finally gathered the courage to be tested for HIV six months after the incident. "When I was told that I had tested positive for HIV, I was ashamed and demoralised and I wanted to kill myself," she told PlusNews.
Many women were abandoned by their husbands after they were raped, or when they were told they were HIV positive, said Emilienne, who used to have a business in Bangui. She also thought she would not be able to survive being rape or discovering she was HIV positive.
UNITING TO DEMAND JUSTICE
The four women are now members of OCODEFAD (L'Organisation pour la Compassion et le Développement des Familles en Détresse), a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) founded in 2003 by Bernadette Sayo, a teacher who was raped and widowed by MLC soldiers.
The NGO aims to take legal action against rapists and their accomplices, but faces a major challenge: the impunity that protects those responsible for sexual violence, even when they have been identified.
Sayo condemned this impunity, describing it as "yet another crime against the victims". Rape has been an ongoing problem, even though the conflict ended when Bozize came into power - the difference now is that the rapists are citizens of the CAR. Rape survivors have noted that their rapists were soldiers of the regular army, and police reports have confirmed this, but there has been little if any legal action against the perpetrators.
A visibly angry Marie-Solange Pagonendji-Ndakala, Minister of Family and Social Affairs and National Solidarity, told PlusNews that her government was fed up with reports about impunity by human right groups and NGOs, as the government was not protecting soldiers from prosecution. "People [soldiers] responsible for sexual violence have been arrested, punished and removed from the army," she said.
In 2004, soldiers accused of rape were excluded from the army and imprisoned, but most of them "escaped" while being held in police detention for questioning, or were freed by other soldiers or by security agents, according to several human rights organisations in the CAR.
LEGISLATION ON VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Pagonendji-Ndakala pointed out that laws had been put in place "to protect women", and punish acts of violence against women, such as rape, domestic violence and certain traditional practices.
Human rights organisations have welcomed the legislation, but have expressed doubts about implementation. According to Brigitte, "With several other women, I laid a complaint at the end of 2003, but there has been no follow-up. We have not heard anything more about it."
While they wait and hope for justice one day, the survivors, and especially those who are HIV positive, have immediate concerns, such as getting enough to eat, supporting their children and accessing healthcare. Of the approximately 350 rape survivors reported by OCODEFAD, 57 have tested HIV positive, and 52 have borne children as a result of being attacked.