Post independent Côte d’Ivoire has for many years been known as the pillar of West Africa; a country whose ethnic groups lived in harmony side by side while its neighbours such as Liberia and Sierra Leone experienced years of political and social unrest that escalated to full blown wars.
For more than 30 decades the message of peace was on every Ivorians’ lips “…Si nous avons dans la paix ramené la liberté, notre devoir sera d'être un modèle de l'espérance promise à l'humanité…” Ivorian National Anthem [translation: “…we have brought back liberty peacefully, it will be our duty to be an example of the hope promised to humanity”].
How is it possible that a country built on the foundations of peace find itself in such a dire situation? Some would say that it was only a matter of time until the instability virus on the Western coast of Africa contaminated Côte d’Ivoire.
More than 1 million inhabitants have been displaced and over 100,00 have fled to neighbouring Liberia; a complete irony when you think that two decades ago it was the reverse. Men, women and children have been victims of displacement, abuse and death due to the political unsettlement that escalated at the turn of the millennium. For over 10 years, insecurity has been on the rise as tensions between the incumbent government and the opposition intensified. The events of the latest elections in November 2010 left citizens of Côte d’Ivoire in extreme danger and for many, the decades of peace are now a distant memory.
Sexual violence and the threat of being sexually assaulted have helped label the streets of Abidjan as one of the most dangerous in Africa. Despite efforts from international and national bodies to protect women, the perpetrators, mainly members of all of the armed forces (according to the International Commission of Inquiry) continue their sexual abuse rampage based on political and ethnic affiliation.
The efforts to contain sexual assault have not gone unnoticed, however the reality of the situation is that women continue to suffer in silence; organisations such as the International Rescue Committee have continued to provide safe havens and clinics for women and children to gain some sense of security but its not enough.
The consequences of sexual abuse are far deeper than physical bruises, cracks, and breaks. Emotional battery is also one of many results of the use of sexual violence against women. Additionally, the spread of HIV and the rise of unwanted pregnancies continue to put pressure on the social order of Côte d’Ivoire.
Whether the acts are of an opportunistic nature or for specific purposes (such as the breakdown of social ties or dominancy), they are not to be condoned. Justice must be served. Several cases are not reported due to fear among women that their perpetrators will seek revenge if they talk- this is the very unfortunate result of the worsening of an already weak judicial system.
Côte d’Ivoire, like many African countries, was experiencing the women empowerment wave that was sweeping the continent however, as long as political unrest prevails, we all suffer a great setback in our goal. As many of us know, rape is one of the most used weapons of war and provided that political and social matters are not settled in a peaceful manner, women (predominantly) continue to bear the cost.
As a Zambian woman who spent most of my childhood in Côte d’Ivoire, my heart bleeds for women like myself who have potentially had their futures snatched away from them. The frequent breaking of civil unrest that makes headline news is a constant reminder of the duty that each individual has to work towards a state of peace. Speaking to the Diaspora in particular, we are never too far to help. It is up to us to keep ourselves informed about the evolving situations in our home countries, spread the word and continue to put pressure on our governments to ensure that peace prevails for all!
By Lasandra Mundia Situmbeko
Graduate in Political Development of Economy (MSc) form SOAS and Conflict and Reconstruction (MA) from University of Manchester. Mundia is very passionate about women’s issues in particular, how women’s political and social participation can better a nation’s economy. She has gained experience whilst working with refugees in Manchester (Refugee Action and WAST) and independent fieldwork in Rwanda. She hopes to continue to work on policydriven initiatives that aim to rehabilitate women from conflict zones in order to give them a platform where they can exercise their potential.
Akindès Francis (2004) “The roots of the military – political crises in Côte d’Ivoire”;
Arieff Axelis (2009) “Sexual Violence in African Conflicts”
Jefferson LaShawn R. “In War as in Peace: Sexual Violence and Women’s Status”
Mac-Ikemenjima Dabesaki (2008) “Youth development, reintegration, reconciliation and rehabilitation in post- conflict West Africa: A framework for Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire”