As Côte d’Ivoire focuses on restoring stability and holding presidential elections, women’s organisations say stopping violence against women and girls must be an urgent priority. They are appealing to the international community for help in the fight.
“There is a lot of work to be done and it’s urgent,” Nicole Doué, vice-president of the Association for the Defence of Women’s Rights, told IRIN.
While violence against women has always existed, women advocates told IRIN, it worsened - particularly rape - during the conflict following the 2002 coup attempt that left the north under rebel control.
“Women’s bodies have been used throughout the crisis by all sides,” Doué said.
Women’s groups plan to launch a national campaign in November, including radio spots in local languages and a nationwide tour to talk to communities and provide support to victims.
“We want to go around the country and show our sisters that they are not alone in this fight,” Ladji Wangué Gueye Nicole, campaign coordinator, told IRIN from the commercial capital Abidjan. “This should help them speak up. We must expose those who assault women. But without funds we cannot do what is needed."
In addition to a nationwide awareness campaign, women's advocates want to set up or rehabilitate help centres for victims, train local authorities and establish legal mechanisms for combating violence against women. Heads of women’s organisations met on 4 November with representatives of the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) and foreign embassies.
“For now we don’t have the funds, the human resources or the equipment we need,” said Fanta Coulibaly, director of the fight against violence on women in the Ministry of Family, Women’s and Social Affairs. Simple things would go a long way, she said. “A simple microphone would help us." She said microphones or radios in marketplaces and bus stations would be ideal for reaching women, particularly those who are illiterate.
Even if women know their rights and choose to exercise them, Coulibaly said, the lack of a functioning judicial system in much of the country is feeding impunity.
Twenty months after the signing of a peace deal that called for restoring government authority in the north, the administration is not yet functioning throughout the country.
“The fact that the justice system is not effective throughout Côte d’Ivoire poses a serious problem in this fight,” she said. “Defence and security forces cannot take the place of magistrates.”
An October report by international and national human rights groups said until magistrates are deployed in the north, “no independent justice is available in the zone controlled by the Force Nouvelles [rebels]”.
The former buffer zone between the north and government-controlled south was for years overseen by international forces, but they have pulled out as part of the 2007 peace deal. Violent crime - including rape - is rampant in the area, and observers say law enforcement is weak and citizens are at the mercy of criminals.
Doué of the women’s rights association said: “They lifted this buffer zone without planning how to ensure women’s security… This is because of the absence of women in the peace process… From Lomé to Ouagadougou [reference to the numerous peace deals signed over the past five years] women have been shut out.”