This year, I celebrated International Women’s Day in the Central African Republic (CAR). Like many African countries, CAR made an event of it. Organizations arranged special lunches for their female personnel. Women dressed in their finest bright African fabrics from headdress to matching ankle-length skirt. The public lawn in front of Norte-Dame Cathedral, the town’s main church, has set up stalls of food, beer and music, determined to carry the festivities on for the duration of the month.
Established 100 years ago to recognize the accomplishments of women, International Women's Day holds a deeper significance for CAR, which has witnessed an alarming increase in sexual violence against women in the past two years.
CAR has been mired in conflict since March 2013, when Seleka rebels took over the capital of Bangui and overthrew the government. In the two years since, the Muslim Seleka militia and the Christian Anti-Balaka militias have engaged in sectarian conflict, attacking one another and the general populace, destroying entire villages. 450,000 people have sought refuge in neighboring Sudan, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of the 442,500 displaced within CAR, 1,750 Muslims are trapped in enclaves, unable to evacuate the country.
The compounded effects of armed conflict on women are well documented. Refugees and internally displaced persons, comprising 20% of the country’s 4.6 million population, are particularly vulnerable. While it is difficult to obtain statistics in a country lacking basic infrastructure such as banks, roads, jails or a government, an estimated one in every two women displaced or seeking refuge from CAR are survivors of sexual violence.
Rebel militias attack entire villages, targeting women and girls of all ages. One women’s treatment center in the capital city of Bangui sees up to 25 women a day, its waiting room filled with both grandmothers and girls as young as five years old.
The violence spans all regions of the country. This week, militias are targeting children in the southern area near the town of Mobaye. An estimated 2,500 children have fled to southern DRC to avoid recruitment as child soldiers or sex slaves for the militia.
In January, four Central African women staged an impromtu protest in the town of Bambari northeast of Bangui upon the arrival of a government delegation to manage the peace process. “Seleka rape us, Anti-Balaka rape us, it is too much, we are fed up,” one shouted, according to Bloomberg News.
International Women’s Day in CAR is not only a recognition of women’s accomplishments but also of the battle wounds women have endured during the country’s recent years of armed conflict.
A heartfelt “bonne fête” to the resilient women of CAR.
While this post is not meant to be a plug, there are a number of humanitarian organizations assisting victims and working to reduce the proliferation of gender-based sexual violence. If you are so inclined, check out the work that Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps are doing in CAR.