Despite some improvement in the security situation of the Central African Republic (CAR) - especially in the capital, Bangui - conditions remain grave for civilians and sexual violence continues to be used by all parties during attacks, particularly against women and children, a United Nations envoy discovered during a recent trip to the country.
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, made her second official visit to CAR from 17 to 19 March to take stock of the situation there.
She met with State officials, civil society representatives and humanitarian workers to discuss practical arrangements for the prevention of and response to conflict-related sexual violence, including victim assistance.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons are unable to return home due to the threat of atrocities committed by perpetrators of inter-communal and inter-religious violence. According to testimonies Ms. Bangura heard, these crimes include recurring instances rape and gang rape, forced marriage, sexual mutilation, abduction and sexual slavery.
The Special Representative condemned these abuses and appealed to both parties - Anti-Balaka and ex-Séléka - to cease the violence immediately, reminding them that these crimes are punishable by national and international courts.
Ms. Bangura expressed deep concern for the absence of multi-sectoral assistance resources for victims of sexual violence, and the pervasive climate of impunity due to the collapse of State authority, judicial institutions and security forces.
President Catherine Samba-Panza renewed her commitment, following the signing of the joint communiqué between the UN and the Government in December 2012, to combat sexual violence.
As an immediate response to end the epidemic of conflict-related sexual violence, the President and the Special Representative agreed to the UN-backed deployment of a rapid response unit of the national gendarmerie to respond to incidents of sexual violence in conflict in Bangui.
Ms. Bangura called for women's active participation in the national dialogue and in reconciliation efforts to restore peace which - with the help of humanitarian agencies and donors - will require increased assistance to victims, improved data collection, and the immediate restoration of the judiciary.
Meanwhile, regarding the severe food shortage that the country is facing, on a more positive note, the World Bank has announced that it would be funding an $8 million agreement with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as part of a $20 million World Food Programme (WFP) aid plan to prevent the country from falling into a full-scale nutrition crisis.
Short-term activities under the agreement will focus on providing seeds and tools to 9,000 families for the upcoming mid-April planting season.
The 9,000 families will each receive 25 kilos of seeds, which will allow them to harvest an estimated 6 000 tonnes of maize, ground nuts and rice by September of this year.
"Farmers need support so that they can produce their own food, restore their livelihoods and take advantage of local economic opportunities," said Alexis Bonte, acting FAO Representative in the CAR.
In the longer term, the project will, among other things, focus on empowering thousands of female farmers, explained Ms. Bonte, stressing that "the role of women in food security, nutrition and peace is crucial."