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Taking a step forward to protect women's rights

Central African Republic, June 2, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Allison Huggins (middle) shakes hands with a participant of Mercy Corps' Women's Empowerment Program on the outskirts of Bangui, Central African Republic. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

My name is Allison Huggins and I manage Mercy Corps’ women’s rights programs in the Central African Republic. I came here after working with women’s groups in Rwanda and Eastern Congo for three years. After my first year working with Mercy Corps, I developed our women’s legal support project after the baseline study that we completed on women’s rights violations showed the extent of violence that women across the country face.

In the last month, our women’s legal center in Bangui has finally gotten up and running after many months of hunting for an office, recruiting staff and training community-based paralegals. In total, we are setting up four centers around the country where women can come to receive free legal advice and help through the legal process if they choose to pursue their cases in court. The women also receive counseling, support and medical treatment when necessary.

We have opened one center so far in the capital, and the number of cases that we have received has been overwhelming. Every day there are new cases of domestic violence and rape, of widows being chased from their homes by their inlaws, or of men leaving their wives alone with several children and no way of providing for them.

Today we met with the 10 paralegals that we trained last month to work in their neighborhoods, educating women about their rights and referring them to the center where our staff can offer them more help. The women came together to discuss their first month of work, and the stories that they told were a bit overwhelming.

The women told of breaking up violence between soldiers and their wives, of cases of five-year-old girls who had been raped, and of countless acts of domestic violence. When we started this project, we knew that gender-based violence was a big problem, but we had no idea how many women would be coming to our centers for help. Now — just a month in — we are already receiving an average of 10 new cases per day, and it seems like there are just not enough hands or resources to help them all.

What really strikes me is the vulnerability of the women who come to our center. Most are illiterate and don’t have any education or skills to be able to get a job. They have no capital to start a business. They don’t understand their rights or how laws can protect them, and so they are exposed to all sorts of violations. Many are sick and hungry.

Even if the support that we give them is small, just empowering women to understand their rights under the law, assuring that they have access to medical care and advice and reassuring them that they have somewhere to go for support goes a long way. Although there is always a looming sense that the problem is too big to address, at least the project is taking a step forward toward protecting women’s rights in the country.