Issue 62 - Article 10

Gender-based violence in the Central African Republic

September 12, 2014
Diana Trimino Mora, Elisabeth Roesch and Catherine Poulton
Members of the Central African Women's Association

When they were done with me they went back to my daughters. A 14-year-old girl. A 12-year-old girl. Both they raped. We just ran with underwear, they ran another way. I haven’’t seen them since then. I live in pain right now. The testimonies in this article are from Central African women. Testimonies are documented by IRC’s Peter Biro in the April 2014 video ‘Voices of Women from the Central African Republic’ ( or were told to Catherine Poulton during her trip to CAR in May–June 2014.

Since December 2013, vicious attacks in Bangui have caused over half the city’s population to flee their homes. As soon as the crisis hit, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) deployed two case workers from its programmes in Kagabandoro to Bangui to provide gender-based violence (GBV) emergency case management services to survivors, and later opening listening centres in Bangui. Since then, more than 950 women and girls have sought help at IRC centres. Nearly 80% reported being raped, in many instances by multiple men affiliated with one armed group or another. The youngest survivor is five years old.

Although every crisis is unique, what is happening in the CAR shares some characteristics with other crises. GBV has long been a neglected feature of humanitarian emergencies. In 2010, the IRC started developing a framework for emergency action to address this by providing a quick and consistent response to protect girls and women from the outset of an emergency. For more information and details on the IRC’s Women’s Protection and Empowerment Emergency and Preparedness model, see  Piloted and tested in multiple crises, IRC’s GBV emergency response programme model has guided the agency’s work in 13 emergencies over the last three years. It has also been the cornerstone of training for more than 400 practitioners from international NGOs, local organisations, UN agencies and governments.

Vertical or horizontal GBV response: IRC’s dual approach

Few debates are as alive within the GBV field as the question of whether GBV efforts should be mainstreamed across existing sectors in both prevention and response, or specialised through dedicated experts, tools and initiatives focused specifically on GBV. The IRC applies a dual approach, with mainstreaming alongside heavy investment in specialised GBV programmes. This is the most successful model, and is being used in the CAR. It ensures that survivors can access specialised care while GBV mainstreaming reduces the risks faced by the entire population of women and girls.

The IRC’s GBV emergency response model prioritises the provision of services to meet the health, psychological and safety needs of GBV survivors. In the CAR, IRC provides emergency case management, crisis counselling and referrals to health services in Bangui, Kagabandoro and Bocaranga. While fixed centres were established in displacement sites in Bangui, IRC has sought greater coverage in more rural areas through mobile clinics. In towns with large health centres, the IRC embedded GBV services within health structures to minimise visibility and stigma. More needs to be done: despite these efforts and those of other NGOs, only 19 out of 44 IDP sites in Bangui had any GBV services at all in January.

Around 90% of survivors supported by the IRC were immediately referred for health care. Although health services are critical in GBV response, they were unfortunately often out of reach for survivors. Many governmentrun, private and some NGO-run health clinics charged fees for care, a significant deterrent to survivors. Moreover, NGOs that provided free services either were not equipped with adequate trained personnel and treatments or did not provide outreach to inform survivors of available services.

Although the IRC reached many survivors in acute need, less than 10% of rape survivors assisted from January to April were able to seek care within the 72–120 hours necessary to prevent the potential transmission of HIV and unwanted pregnancy. Almost 60% of the clients coming to IRC centres in Bangui over this period had experienced violence in December 2013, at the height of the conflict. This has major implications for emergency responders and decision-makers: first, GBV programmes must be part of the first phase of emergency response, and second, sectors such as health need to consider and respond to the needs of GBV survivors.

Risk reduction through mainstreaming and direct action

Prevention is cited by many as a gap in emergencies, in part due to weak evidence of what works. See Humanitarian Exchange no. 60, February 2014, on gender-based violence, and Rebecca Holmes and Dharini Bhuvanendra, Preventing and Responding to Gender-based Violence in Humanitarian Crises, Network Paper 77, February 2014.  Yet even in emergencies, the IRC works to prevent GBV and increase women and girls’ safety and well-being. It does this as a two-step process: working with women and girls to identify the risks to their safety, using safety audits, community mapping and focus group discussions, and acting on this information. In CAR, women and girls identified three areas that were putting them in danger: lack of money and resources, the collection of water and firewood and inadequate shelter and site planning.

From 7pm, the girls do not even leave the tents. They do not even set foot outside the tent. The girls will not even urinate because if they leave the tent boys attack.

IRC’s response in CAR was two-fold: first, advocacy with other sectoral actors to address harm and risks identified by the women and girls, notably non-food item (NFI) distribution, water, sanitation and shelter; and second, the direct distribution of goods to women and girls to increase their access to and control over resources. From December to May, the IRC distributed approximately 10,000 dignity kits Dignity kits distributed by the IRC generally contain sanitary material/towels, buckets, soap and other material selected together with women and adolescent girls. Kits vary according to location and identified risks.  to displaced women, with targeted distributions to adolescent girls who felt excluded from household distributions. Aid is usually distributed to the family unit, and women and girls said they do not always have access to it, and are then vulnerable to exploitation. The IRC also piloted a fuelefficient stove initiative to address risks around firewood collection. Post-distribution monitoring demonstrated that the stoves reduced the need to gather firewood from an average of three times a week to just once a week. Stoves also reduced the time spent in cooking and increased women’s sense of safety associated with procuring cooking fuel.

Working with women’s grassroots organisations in emergencies

The IRC sees great value in partnering with and building the capacities of women’s grassroots organisations before, during and after a crisis. However, donors and other actors often consider this a low priority during acute crises, and in CAR we are still looking for support to develop such programmes, which are considered by many donors as ‘development’ activities.

IRC’s experience shows that partnering as early as possible with women’s organisations on GBV emergency response increases access for survivors and is key to sustainable basic service provision for several reasons: survivors often know and feel comfortable with the women involved; it provides new channels for sharing critical information; and local organisations ensure that key services continue even if security concerns do not allow easy access to international NGOs.

In CAR many NGOs had not started programming or were working under extreme security restrictions during December. Host and displaced populations were responsible for their own survival. However, in places where IRC had trained community volunteers from local women’s groups before the outbreak of violence, basic care and support continued, even when NGOs including the IRC were not present.

IRC believes that on-the-ground training and shadowing during an emergency is the most effective way to cement capacity within local organisations. This is why it deploys experts who work hand in hand with local women’s associations, providing services while simultaneously transferring skills. Partnering with local women’s organisations can also link relief and recovery, as these same women are often instrumental in reconstruction and the economic recovery of their communities.

Turning political commitment into change on the ground

An effective and multipronged approach to GBV in emergencies will require both commitment and action from donors, UN agencies and partner organisations. Strengthening policy and funding trends to enable an effective response to GBV in emergencies is critical. In November 2013 a group of donors, UN agencies and NGOs met to drive forward a step change in the response to violence against women and girls in emergencies. The ‘Keep Her Safe’ Call to Action resulted in a Communiqué signed by 40 organisations and governments. Women and girls also featured prominently during the CAR Donor Brussels High-Level Meeting.

This represents a significant shift, but action at the top is not yet translating into action on the ground. Information about GBV in CAR was not put to good use in shaping response plans and donor strategies: the UN Strategic Response Plan (SRP) contained no targeted actions to address GBV; the 100 Day Plan for Priority Humanitarian Action did not give priority to actual GBV services; and not a single GBV programme has been funded through the two rounds of the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) for this crisis.

Why is this unprecedented attention on GBV in emergencies not leading to concrete change on the ground? First, highlevel political commitments have not trickled down to the regional and local offices of donors, multilaterals and NGOs. Second, there is no accountability mechanism to ensure implementation of Call to Action commitments. Finally, common funding pools such as the CHF are still to prioritise GBV in CAR.

Under the leadership of the US government, the September 2014 follow-up Call to Action is expected to define an accountability mechanism around the 2013 commitments and Communiqué. The IRC is calling on donors, multilaterals and NGOs to ensure that the accountability framework is designed for high-level commitments and trickles down regional and field levels; donors ensure that funding allocated to common pools includes clear recommendations to prioritise GBV and follow up on implementation; donors and organisations that have signed up to the Call to Action translate the 12 global commitments in the Communiqué into bilateral donor policy and funding; and tying them to specific, measurable impacts – within a defined time period. Only when we are able to translate these commitments into concrete and measurable actions will we really be accountable to the women and girls we serve, in CAR and other emergencies.

Diana Trimiño Mora is a Policy Advisor for the Women’s Protection & Empowerment Unit, International Rescue Committee UK (IRC UK). Elisabeth Roesch is a Women’s Protection & Empowerment Emergency Coordinator for the IRC and Catherine Poulton is the Women’s Protection & Empowerment Technical Advisor covering CAR at the IRC.


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