News Violence

‘Dawn of a New Hope’ For Whom? Violence and Impunity Still Plague Women in Ivory Coast

Jessica Mack

Nearly one year after post-election violence in Ivory Coast displaced one million and fostered brutal sexual violence, the country seems to be getting back on track and a new campaign seeks to end the acceptance of violence as "normal."

Laurent Gbagbo should have gone quietly. After a decade as President of Ivory Coast, mostly everyone – Ivorians and outsiders – agreed that he had lost the November 2010 election to Alasanne Outtarra. But he didn’t go, and certainly not quietly, instead plunging the country into chaos until his arrest in April. By UN estimates, citizen militias backed by both men resulted in 3,000 killed and approximately one million displaced, with 70,000 still residing across the border of neighboring Liberia.

Ivorian women initially made up a strong contingent of the democracy activists calling for Gbagbo’s swift removal, at the front line of protests for peace and free elections. Yet as chaos grew, they quickly became subsumed by it. Sexualized violence, as it is always amplified in crises, spread like wildfire. 

Last April, I spoke with Liz Pender, a gender-based violence technical advisor for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian group. Pender, speaking from refugee camp on the Liberia border, relayed reports of gang rapes, rapes of entire families, and sexual slavery as women and girls were “taken as wives” for weeks on end.

“These women have experienced things that we cannot even imagine – and many for the second time,” she said, referring to the violence endured during the last major Ivorian conflict, 2004’s civil war.

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It’s been about one year since the chaos died down, at least politically. Laurent Gbagbo has been charged with crimes against humanity and awaits his fate in the Hague. Meanwhile, President Outtara has begun his much-anticipated reign, calling it “the dawn of a new hope,” and has vowed to investigate last year’s election pandemic (though that’s not looking very promising).

Yet survivors of conflict-driven sexual violence are still struggling to move on. While local and international groups have continued providing medical and psychosocial care, few avenues to justice exist.

“In terms of legal services for survivors, there’s hardly anything,” said Monika Bakayoko-Topolska, Gender-Based Violence Coordinator for the IRC in Ivory Coast.  “The legal system in Ivory Coast totally fell apart during the crisis. Women have no access to a tribunal, and not much access to the justice system. A woman may go to the police station to make a complaint, and if she isn’t turned away, she will be under a lot of pressure  to withdraw her accusation.”

A limp legal system and the general aversion of women in Ivory Coast to even attempt to seek justice is a problem on which IRC is trying to zero in. Bakayoko-Topolska says that sexualized violence related to last year’s election continues to some extent, but IRC and others are now looking further up the causal chain – focusing on the acceptance of violence as a way of life. Sexualized violence tends to spike during moments of crisis, and the persistence and acceptance of domestic violence and violence more broadly creates an enabling environment for this. 

“[These types of violence] are very much connected, related to the lack of balance of power between men and women,” said Bakayoko-Topolska. “Women have a lower status than men, even though the constitution recognizes women’s equal rights. Domestic violence is very accepted as a way of educating and controlling women. Sexual violence is then possible because we don’t see women as protected and supported by the general community.”

On Monday in Abidjan, IRC launched “Breaking the Silence,” a nationwide multi-media social marketing campaign to change norms around violence and encourage greater reporting of violence. In 2010, a community survey by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that 47 percent of women (and 16 percent of men) had experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives, yet fewer than two percent had ever attempted to officially report it. Shame, humiliation, and lack of knowledge of where to turn and to whom to speak about about the violence were reported as key reasons for non-disclosure.

The campaign is a direct volley back to these social factors, seeking to empower women to no longer accept violence as the status quo, while inspiring men to be leaders of change as well. Messages tailored to men include “protect women, it is your business” and “we are a team against violence,” while those for women are “brave woman, stand up against violence!” and “there is no place for violence in our home!” IRC hopes to see an immediate increase in the number of domestic violence cases reported.

“I don’t think we’ll have a huge impact on social norms after six months, but it’s a seed we are planting – not accepting violence as part of life.” said Bakayoko-Topolska.

The biggest challenge may not be changing social norms, however, but rather a weak legal framework for women’s rights. Good-intentioned laws to protect women do exist, but they’re shot through with loopholes, leaving ample room for interpretations that go against women’s interests, or are useless altogether.

For example, a law against rape doesn’t include any mention of marital rape, nor does it define what “rape” is. Physical violence is against the law, but intimate partner violence, so common in Ivory Coast, is not included. Bakayoko-Topolska can rattle off at least half a dozen other examples of “nice try, but no cigar” efforts to address issues like female genital cutting and remarriage after widowhood. “Women don’t seek justice because they know the law against it is so broad that people will turn them away from the police station,” she says.  

It’s not a surprise, then, that for women in Ivory Coast, it remains to be seen whether a Outtara presidency will be any better than a Gbagbo one, or any other for that matter.

“In the first months after Outtara created a new government, there was a lot of excitement and there seemed to be a push for the improvement for women’s rights. The political speeches were very positive and encouraging, but we don’t know whether they’ll implement what they say,” said Bakayoko-Topolska.

This is the murky uphill that women’s rights groups in Ivory Coast are trying to climb. Given so many challenges, IRC’s new anti-violence campaign is perhaps a shot in the dark – but even a shot in the dark does break the silence.

Roundups Media

Global Roundup: Rape Threat Relativity in South Sudan; Women Divorce Proudly in Nepal

Jessica Mack

Weekly global roundup: Nepali women learn about their right to divorce and increasingly do so; Argentina's new Gender Identity Law first in the world; Tanzania's President petitioned over contraception access; relativity in rape threats for women in South Sudan.

Nepal: More Divorce Means More Women Exercising Their Rights

Global Press Institute (GPI) reports on the complex evolution of Nepal’s divorce law over recent decades. An increased awareness of the law as it has changed, has compelled exponential number of women to seek divorces, they report. The number of cases filed in 2005 to 2006 was 640; from 2010 to 2011, there were 1,317 cases filed. Divorce was first legalized in Nepal in 1963, with the law was updated in 2002 to include additional grounds for divorce and implementing protective measures for women’s property ownership following divorce. GPI finds that it is easier for women to legally file for divorce than men, due to a difference in proceedings, yet not easier socially. Stigma around divorced women and single motherhood persist, and a 2011 governmental report found that property rights are rarely granted to women following divorce. Nonetheless, advocates have continued to push for expanded rights of women – for instance, a civil code bill introduced in 2011 makes marital rape grounds for divorce – while local NGOs continue to educate women broadly about their rights so that they are empowered and equipped to exercise them fully. Via Global Press Institute.

Argentina: Gender Identity Law Makes History

Last week, Argentina’s Congress approved – by a 55 to 0 margin – a Gender Identity Law that no longer requires trans individuals to go to court to legally re-assign their gender, and obligates health insurances companies from covering sex re-assignment surgery or hormone therapy on-demand. It’s a major breakthrough for the world on trans rights, but also for Latin America, a region traditionally known for macho attitudes. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010 under President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner. Though they are distinct, queer rights and reproductive rights often go hand in hand, or rather neck in neck, as litmus tests of a society’s ability to uphold human rights principles. While it’s amazing news, it’s notable that abortion is still quite restricted in Argentina. It would be great if the new Gender Identity Law would also support women, who want to identify as women, in exercising their sexual rights free from restriction. Moreover, while President Obama made a splash last week by coming out in support of same sex marriage in the US, women’s reproductive rights in the country continue to be whittled down by oppressive policies. Via Foreign Policy.

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Tanzania: Step it Up on Contraception Access

Several Members of Parliament (MPs), part of the Parliamentary Family Planning Club (sounds like an awesome club), have petitioned Tanzania’s President to specifically include a budget line for contraceptive supplies in the country’s five-year development plan. Not including specific and well-funded efforts to address access to contraception will undermine the government’s broader efforts to reduce maternal mortality, the petition says. This shouldn’t be a tough sell to President Kikwete, who is an internationally recognized champion on women’s health issues and sits on an elite advisory board for a major United Nations effort to improve women’s and children’s health. Increasingly, a specific focus on contraception access and supplies is seen as entirely critical to making any headway in reducing maternal, infant, and child deaths. It’s unfortunate that the case still needs to be made that ensuring adequate contraceptive supplies, and unfettered access to that supplies, is a major step in reducing maternal deaths and injuries, and importantly bestows the agency upon women that they seek to begin with – the control their own fertility and bodies. Via All Africa.

South Sudan: Less Rape in Refugee Camps Still “Safer” for Women

Working for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on the ground in South Sudan, women’s protection specialist Elizabeth Pender writes about the experience for women at the Yida refugee camp. The camp is home to 30,000 people, many of them women and children. New additions have fled outrageous sexual violence and threats in the Nuba Mountains, making those they almost certainly face within camps pale in comparison. It’s a “grim illustration of the conditions women and girls face at Yida camp that a place where they risk being raped every time they go to the market or beaten by their husbands every time they go home, is safe compared to where they came from,” Pender writes. The reports Pender and others are hearing are every bit as horrific, but not all together surprising: women being “taken” by military men as wives for indefinite amounts of time and brutal rapes committed in front of family members. Protection of women and girls is a major issue in the camps. Five hundred girls arrived from a boarding school without family members or teachers in tow to help guard against predators, and their mobility is paralyzed by the constant threat of rape. One solution has been to create an all-girls compound for safety, but the reality, writes Pender, has been, “overcrowding, not enough food, no bathing area, one latrine for every 100 girls, no gate and no guards.” As fighting persists along the South Sudan border, the issue of sexual violence and women’s rights is quickly becoming the central issue – if it was not already. Via Global Post.