Women in villages around Korhogo, northern Côte d’Ivoire, dare not walk to their fields alone for fear of rape.
“Women are attacked even with their babies on their backs,” said Fatoumata (real names not used). “The attacker just goes for what he is after and that is that. The baby could even die.”
Women gathered at a health centre in Korhogo, 630km north of the commercial capital Abidjan, told IRIN women are frequently raped as they walk to and from their fields.
Attackers often hide in karité or néré trees, whose fruit villagers harvest for lotions, food and other products, the women told IRIN.
“They shake the trees so some of the fruit will fall, to lure women to stop and gather it up,” Mariam said. “When the woman stops the man attacks her.”
The assailant is generally not armed; since the woman is alone it is easy for the man to overpower her, the women said.
“One day villagers found the body of an elderly woman who had been raped and died in the attack,” Salimata said.
Fanta Coulibaly, head of a committee to fight violence on women and children – part of the Ministry of Family, Women and Social Affairs – said people in several regions of Côte d’Ivoire have told her rape on the way to the fields is common.
“Women cannot even do their work in peace without the threat of rape,” she told IRIN in the capital Abidjan.
Since a coup attempt in 2002 rebels have controlled Côte d’Ivoire’s north. The conflict and proliferation of arms in the country have exacerbated poverty and crime, but the women in Korhogo said rape in rural zones has been common since long before the conflict.
The women said when someone is raped she reports it in the village and men go out to try to catch the attacker, but it is difficult to track him down.
Boua Diarrassouba, regional director in Korhogo for the Ministry of Family, Women and Social Affairs, told IRIN that in the rural setting when an assailant is caught, villagers usually take justice into their own hands.
|Women cannot even do their work in peace without the threat of rape|
“The dignity of a man is his wife,” he said. When a woman is attacked in this way, if the culprit is caught, the punishment is generally a beating or worse, he said. “These cases usually end in bloodshed. The local authorities are not contacted except perhaps later to examine the damages.”
Rapists are called tchétchan, in the local language, Senoufo, meaning one who has an innate and uncontrollable urge to have sex with women; not all rapists are tchétchan, women told IRIN, but this is the word used for rapists.
Women said when rapes happen in the town of Korhogo – which they said is also common – most victims are not motivated to go after their attackers because they have no confidence the process will lead to punishment. One described a recent case in which an accused rapist was detained for just hours then let go.
“Nothing happens to the men who do this,” Fati said. “That’s why they continue to carry out such acts.” All the women gathered nodded in agreement.
A lack of legal infrastructure in the north is part of the problem, activists against sexual violence say. More than six years after the rebellion the government in January held an official ceremony to mark the redeployment of justice officials to the north, but the process is yet incomplete.
When asked what could be done about the problem of attacks on the way to the fields, Mariam described her idea for a sting operation to catch assailants.
“A man should dress up as a woman – with a skirt, a stuffed bra under women’s clothes, a headscarf,” she said. “Then he would walk alone toward the fields. A group of villagers would follow him. If an attacker strikes, the man could fight him off until the villagers could come and capture him.”
“We suffer greatly from this threat,” Fatoumata said. The women said they are not free to work as they wish.
Women who have been raped are not marginalised by others in the village, those gathered at the health centre told IRIN. Several of them said at once: “We all know it could be us next time.”