Rape and sexual slavery have been used as weapons of war across Central African Republic, with armed groups carrying out brutal attacks with impunity, human rights campaigners have warned.
Research by Human Rights Watch found that sexual violence is not only tolerated by commanders fighting in the country’s ongoing conflict, but in some cases ordered or committed by them.
The study detailed cases of women and girls who were held as sexual slaves for up to 18 months. Many of the women interviewed endured multiple sexual attacks, in addition to other forms of torture. Survivors of such violence have little access to health care or support, and even less hope of justice, the report warned.
Central African Republic has been wracked by sectarian violence for the past five years. In 2013, François Bozizé was overthrown as president by the Seleka, a predominantly Muslim rebel group. In response, the anti-balaka militia was formed, consisting of mostly Christian fighters. Spiralling violence between the two sides has since resulted in the deaths of thousands.
Both factions have used sexual violence as revenge against women perceived to be supporters of the rival party, according to the report. Stigma and a dysfunctional justice system have stopped many women from reporting such crimes, however.
In 2014 alone, the UN recorded more than 2,500 cases of sexual violence.
“Armed groups are using rape in a brutal, calculated way to punish and terrorise women and girls,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Of the 296 women interviewed, less than half had received any medical or mental healthcare, even though many had suffered incapacitating physical injuries or illness. Even women who had contracted HIV or experienced suicidal thoughts were unable to access appropriate healthcare, with lack of medical facilities, the cost of travel and treatment, and fear of rejection all contributory factors.
One 31-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch: “They killed my husband, raped me, I don’t have my house, I’m infected [with HIV] – that’s what they have done to me. I want to bring them to justice because they have ruined my life.”
Survivors of sexual violence reported that their husbands had left them and family members had blamed them. Many also said they had been taunted by members of their community.
“There’s embarrassment that they’ve not only tainted themselves, but their families are also tainted by this shameful act,” said Margolis. “It’s this idea that the survivor is dirty now, which is at times tied up the risk of HIV and the fear of getting sexually transmitted diseases.
“There’s also this concept that if your wife has slept with someone else she almost belongs to that person. She has been tainted and taken.”
Although the abuses detailed in the report constitute war crimes, and are also crimes under Central African law, only 11 of the 296 women interviewed said they had attempted to file a criminal complaint. No members of armed groups are known to have been arrested or tried for committing sexual violence, said Human Rights Watch.
The organisation called for the newly established special criminal court, which will include both national and international judges, to begin dealing with cases urgently.
“There needs to be a strong and urgent message in Central African Republict hat rape as a weapon of war is intolerable, that rapists will be punished, and that survivors will get the support they desperately need,” Margolis said. “Even in a conflict zone, the government and international institutions can and should work to make services available to all rape survivors now, and put rapists on the path to accountability.”