Rape and sexual slavery are being used as weapons of war by armed groups in the Central African Republic, according to a new Human Rights Watch report.

The report documents how, during five years of conflict, sexual violence has been used to punish and coerce women and girls, often along sectarian lines.

“Armed groups are using rape in a brutal, calculated way to punish and terrorize women and girls,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Every day, survivors live with the devastating aftermath of rape, and the knowledge that their attackers are walking free, perhaps holding positions of power, and to date facing no consequences whatsoever.”

Fighting began in the Central African Republic in 2012, when the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels marched on the capital Bangui.
Local militias, known collectively as anti-balaka, and mostly drawn from the country’s Christian and animist population, were formed to resist the Seleka. A series of peace deals, and the deployment of more than 10 000 United Nations peacekeepers, has failed to halt the conflict.

Human Rights Watch documented 305 cases of rape and sexual slavery carried out against 296 women since the fighting began, although the real figures are likely much higher: social stigma and access issues mean that these statistics are not comprehensive, but indicative of a more widespread problem.

Marie (full name withheld), a 30-year-old woman from Bambari, described her experience. “I was with my husband in the house. The Seleka came…. They pushed my husband to the ground and two pointed their guns at him. Then four of them rushed at me and pushed me to the ground. Each of the four then raped me. My husband was in the room, but they would not let him move. I have thought about what these men did and justice for myself. I want these men brought to justice and put in prison,” she said.

“There needs to be a strong and urgent message in the Central African Republic that rape as a weapon of war is intolerable, that rapists will be punished, and that survivors will get the support they desperately need,” said Human Rights Watch’s Margolis. “Even in a conflict zone, the government and international institutions can and should work to make services available to all rape survivors now, and put rapists on the path to accountability.”