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Source: International Rescue Committee
Alarming numbers of Ivorian women and girls have been raped, sexually assaulted, beaten and harassed by armed men at home or as they were fleeing violence and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) fears those who are reporting incidents represent a tiny fraction of the victims.

“The reports I’m hearing are horrific,” says Liz Pender, an IRC women’s protection expert, who has been meeting with groups of Ivorian women and girls who fled to Liberia in recent weeks to escape the violence ravaging Ivory Coast. “Women and girls are being brutally raped by armed men, often in front of their family members. One woman told me she was forced to watch as several men took turns raping her sister, sometimes with a stick, and that she didn’t survive the attack.”

Pender also heard disturbing accounts of armed groups abducting women and girls for up to a week and forcing them to serve as sexual slaves.  “If you are good, they will eventually let you go,” one woman told Pender.  “But mostly when they get tired of you, they exchange you with their friends. And when they are done, they might kill you.”

Of the refugee women who took part in Pender’s group discussions, fear of rape or sexual slavery were the primary reasons women said they fled to Liberia.

In Ivory Coast, an IRC-supported network of medical professionals, counselors and women’s groups helping victims in six volatile districts recorded a four-fold increase in the number of survivors seeking assistance since December.  The youngest victim, in Yamoussoukro, was a seven-year old girl.

“We know that the women seeking help or sharing their stories represent a tiny fraction of the real number of victims,” says Monika Bakayoko-Topolska, who oversees IRC programs aiding sexual violence survivors in Ivory Coast. “From our experience, usually the number of victims is anywhere from two to 10 times the amount that gets reported.”

Many women and girls are afraid to come forward fearing reprisal from their assailants or rejection from their families.  Others are unable to access health clinics or counseling centers because the facilities are either out of reach or shut down by the violence. 
Pender says that out of the 300 women who participated in her discussion groups, 26 women mustered up the courage to disclose their rapes—and not one of them had been able to receive medical care or counseling.

Both Pender and Bakayoko-Topolska stress that Ivorian women and girls have been terrorized and traumatized by what they’ve been subjected to.  In addition to the widespread rape, women are reporting being chased from their homes by gunmen or running for their lives amid fierce fighting in their communities.

Many women witnessed their husbands and other family members beaten or shot dead in front of them and others report being stripped and paraded around naked at check points while all their belongings were seized.

“The political standoff may be over, but women and girls remain at grave risk in communities across the country as political and ethnic tensions simmer,” says Bakayoko-Topolska. “We’re very concerned about women and girls being targeted in revenge attacks and caught in the middle of ongoing violence.”

She notes that Ivorian women have vivid memories of the sexual violence that raged during the last civil war in Ivory Coast from 2002 to 2004 and persisted long after the conflict ended.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis is worsening in Ivory Coast.  More than one million people remain uprooted, many clinics and hospitals are closed and food, water and electricity are in short supply.  Most people living in embattled parts of Abidjan and elsewhere remain too scared to venture out to seek help, in spite of their desperate situation.

The IRC says the international humanitarian response must be ramped up and adequately funded to address the scale of the humanitarian disaster and the urgent needs of women and girls.  To date, emergency appeals launched by the United Nations have raised anemic levels of funding for the crisis, particularly for protection programs which include those that address sexual violence.  A coordinated and long-term response is needed that addresses the needs of sexual violence survivors, but also invests in prevention, education and rule of law

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