Five years ago a group of fighters marched into Alice Bébo’s village, set it on fire and gave the women and girls a choice: submit to rape or die.
“I was 14 years old at the time,” Bébo told IRIN.
Her story is among many that illustrate the sexual violence that has taken place during Côte d’Ivoire’s protracted conflict, according to an international human rights group.
Although the country’s brief civil war officially ended five years ago and a peace deal has been signed, the nation is still divided between a government-run south and rebel-held north. Insecurity remains a serious problem, especially in the west along the border with Liberia where the town of Duekoué is located, according to human rights investigators and aid workers.
“Rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used so extensively and with such impunity that we can only conclude that government security forces and armed opposition groups have been using these crimes as part of a deliberate strategy to instil terror in the civilian population,” said Véronique Aubert, deputy director of London-based Amnesty International in a statement released on Thursday.
It coincides with Amnesty’s report, ‘Côte d’Ivoire: Targeting women - the forgotten victims of conflict’.
Amnesty said some of the worst abuses against women and girls have been committed by mercenaries from Liberia who has links to Ivorian armed opposition groups in the west of the country. Several women Amnesty interviewed said they had been attacked by fighters who spoke English, a language spoken in Liberia.
Thérèse Kouadio, a trader in Duekoué, told IRIN that three months after the crisis erupted in 2002 she fled her town of Bouaké into the bush with about a dozen other people.
“Unfortunately we ran into a group of fighters,” said 47 year-old Kouadio. “They demanded that the women take off their clothes. Out of fear we advised each other to do it. My daughter was a virgin. They took her about 20 metres from me along with another girl of about 17 years old. They raped them at gunpoint.”
Kouadio said, “They forced the youngest among us to submit to them. When we arrived in Abidjan my daughter had abdominal pain for two weeks. I had to take her to the hospital to save her.”
Amnesty said that although there is no longer combat in Côte d’Ivoire many women and girls are still victims of gang rape or are abducted and forced into sexual slavery by fighters. Beatings and torture often accompany rape, which is frequently committed in public and in front of family members, the rights group said.
“To our knowledge, none of the perpetrators of these crimes has ever been brought to justice,” Aubert said.
She said partners or families often abandon victims, forcing them into extreme poverty often with dependent children.
Amnesty recommended that sexual crimes be investigated and prosecuted and that victims receive proper compensation.
“Rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by combatants or fighters during an armed conflict…are crimes against humanity and war crimes under international criminal law and should be treated as such,” Aubert said. “Eliminating sexual violence must be a priority for any plan aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the current crisis in Côte d’Ivoire.”