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16.03.2007 International

Ivorian women 'forgotten victims'

By BBC

Sexual violence against women in Ivory Coast's conflict has been ignored, says Amnesty International in a new report.

Hundreds and maybe thousands of women have been raped, assaulted or forced into sexual slavery, it says.

Fighters from all sides have used sexual violence as part of a deliberate strategy to instil terror in and to humiliate the population, Amnesty says.

A peace deal signed this month aims to unite the country split in two since rebels seized the north in 2002.

The UK-based human rights group says the scale and brutality of the sexual and physical violence being perpetrated against women in the conflict in Ivory Coast is vastly underestimated.

"Hundreds, if not thousands of women and girls have been, and indeed are, still victims of widespread and, at times, systematic rape and sexual assault committed by a range of fighting forces,” Amnesty's Veronique Aubert said.

The report - Cote d'Ivoire: Targeting women, the forgotten victims of conflict - includes testimony from women who have been raped, often in front of family and friends.

“The attackers came to our home. They hit my husband and my son - I cried a lot and one of them rushed at me and tore my skirt. They raped me in front of my husband and children,” said Benedicte, who was raped by rebels in Bouake in 2002. s

The report alleges that those responsible include the New Forces rebels, the militias who support President Laurent Gbagbo, and members of the security forces who are loyal to President Gbagbo.

These organisations say they are not prepared to comment until they have seen the report.

The bulk of the cases took place, Amnesty says, in the early days of the civil war, which broke out in September 2002.

But the report also draws attention to the alleged rape of several women in December 2000.

The women were perceived to be supporters of the northern opposition leader Alasanne Ouattara because they were from the northern Muslim Dioula ethnic group.

The failure to prosecute anyone for the crime, despite an official report into the incidents, created a climate of impunity which made it easier for subsequent rapes to take place, Amnesty says.

The report says that rape continues to be used as a political weapon.

Many victims have been let down by the justice system.

“Many of the women have HIV, and others have been affected mentally and psychologically,” rape victim Monique Kobri told the BBC, who says she was infected with HIV by her rapists.

“They don't have the money and no-one supports them to give them the care they need. I say that we are not in a country of justice,” she said.

The BBC's James Copnall in Abidjan says in the rebel-controlled north there is no longer a court system.

He says the report suggests the authorities in the south have let a climate of impunity flourish.

Amnesty concludes that justice is vital - but no less important than improved access to healthcare for women whose lives have been ruined by sexual violence.

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