With the UN's announcement that a record number of people are now displaced in the Central African Republic and a call for $515m in humanitarian aid, CAR is fast becoming one of the biggest, yet most under-reported humanitarian crises of our time.
The history of CAR's conflict is as complex as it is distressing. What is often reported as religious tensions predominantly relates to splinter groups of warring factions which control different areas. The number of armed groups is continuously rising, occupying much of CAR's land mass and in November the UN appointed an extra 900 peacekeepers to try and bring an end to the conflict.
During times of conflict we often see the disintegration of social norms, with vulnerable groups particularly at risk, often leading to sexual and gender-based violence. CAR is no exception, with stories of 90% of women having been raped since the conflict began. Disturbingly there are no official statistics, yet it is commonly understood that the vast majority of women have experienced some form of sexual violence.
Tearfund has been working in CAR since 2013, and we have seen both the incredible strength of its people, and the immense struggle they have had to bear. With sexual violence so widespread and conflict escalating, what hope is there for a long-term, positive outcome?
The current #TimesUp and #MeToo movement has given gender violence a global stage and an opportunity for those previously silenced to finally speak out and seek justice, with nearly $20m raised as a legal defence fund dedicated to helping those affected. It has also shone a spotlight on what has become normalised and 'accepted' behaviours. The process of justice, of transforming these embedded behaviours, of trying to forgive the perpetrators, will be long, challenging and difficult.
In CAR, where rape has been used as a weapon of war, and despite shockingly high statistics, no sexual violence case has ever been brought to justice. Survivors are bereft of any medical or legal assistance and to compound this, the intense stigmatisation has meant that women who are assaulted are often cast out by their husbands and communities, effectively economically ruined and often homeless. This is alongside surviving brutal conflict, the fear of attack, lack of food and a means of income.
Within this environment and with a growing humanitarian crisis, what hope is there for empowering women and creating any positive impact long-term?
The road is long and complex, but Tearfund is seeing windows of light. Our recent pilot project has offered a multi-pronged approach, offering trauma counselling to heal survivors' deep psychological wounds, tackling harmful gender norms through masculinities training, and enabling women to become literate and financially self-sufficient by helping them build small businesses. With the help of the UK Government, who are aid-matching our work, we will be rolling out the programme on a much larger scale later this year.
Since the project began we have seen potential for change which previously looked impossible. As part of our masculinities training we heard for the first time from men about the reasons behind sexual and gender based violence - entrenched views surrounding the deep inequality of women and men, the normalisation of violence as a means of power and control, even within a domestic setting. We also heard from women about their violence towards their partners and children and the cycle of revenge which had become part of everyday life and how it is tied to hierarchy. There is no easy fix, but challenging these norms has been fundamental, and to our surprise we found survivors and perpetrators eager and open to sharing their stories and challenging these seemingly immovable beliefs.
The appetite for change can be felt across CAR. Harrowing tales from women of gang rape are accompanied by a tremendous hunger for progress and economic independence. The widows of Mbaiki, a rural town in the Lobaye, whose husbands were decapitated during the conflict, have joined together to create a thriving cassava farm and microfinance scheme. Women are creating their own movement, building peace in their villages, turning the battleground of Boda into a peaceful neighbourhood.
There is a long road ahead and it would be naive and grossly inaccurate to paint too rosy a picture. For hundreds of thousands of women and men, life remains desperate and full of fear. It is our duty and calling to serve the people of CAR in their greatest need. To truly turn around the fortunes of this troubled nation we need to continue to advocate for peace, to support the UN, and to unlock the true potential of CAR's resilient people.
Nigel Harris is the CEO of Tearfund.