Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Africa: Refugees Vulnerable to Gender Violence

The United Nations says gender-based violence against Central African Republic refugees in East Cameroon is very high and is calling on the government in Yaounde to do more to protect these vulnerable women.

Thousands of people from the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) continue to stream into Cameroon. The country is the most common destination for those seeking to escape violence seen in the C.A.R. over the last six months.

Most of the 11,000 refugees in the border village of Gado are women and girls. But instead of finding safety, many face new threats, including rape. One victim, 17-year-old Duna Divina, says she and her family were assaulted repeatedly.

She said she, her mother and her five sisters were abused for two weeks by armed men while escaping violence in the C.A.R.

United Nations officials say that even in the refugee camps these women still face attacks from men both inside and outside the camps.

Nurse Ndifornta Amabel says cattle ranchers also abuse the women.

"Since the place is a cattle rearing zone, they meet people who take care of cattle and they sexually assault them. Many of them came from very devastating situations and some of them come here while pregnant," said Amabel.

Kepeu Jacques of the nongovernmental organization Doctors Without Borders told VOA that lots of the victims are suffering from sexually transmissible infections, including AIDS.

"We find sometimes situations as bad as vaginal lacerations where you actually see some tears around the vagina, bruises to show that it was really a forceful sex not by one person. Sometimes the women do confess that they were done by multiple persons on the same woman," said Jacques.

The U.N. representative for women in Cameroon, Rachelle Mian Djagone, told VOA her group is working to educate women on their rights with respect to gender-based violence.

She said education for women is crucial since so many refugee women are suffering trauma in silence. She said they are setting up units to care for survivors of rape and other violence, and are recruiting social workers to teach women both their rights and how to invest in little businesses so they have some sort of financial autonomy.

Messanga Alvino, adviser to the traditional leader of Gado, said the hospitals in the area are small; local hospitals have only a few hundred beds to serve the thousands of refugees.

U.N. officials say they are also working to organize better living conditions to help reduce women and girls' vulnerability to attacks.

"When we develop the site we take into consideration the cultural background of those people. We give space for one, two or three families and after that we take them to their family tents, then we build their family shelter. We move the people from the tents to their family shelter. In total we have almost 450 family shelters and we intend to build 1,000 family shelters here and also we have space allocated for the kids," said Mahamat Alhadi, a site planner with the UNHCR refugee camp in Gado.

Alhadi said that to reduce social conflicts and cases of abuse, they are organizing the camps in such a way that families and relatives are lodged together so that they can identify and report strange faces that may want to cause trouble among the refugee communities.

The 2011 Demographic and Health Survey and the Indicator Cluster Survey of the government of Cameroon indicates 55 percent of females in Cameroon under the age of 15 have experienced physical violence.

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