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From violence to vocation, fear to freedom

Central African Republic, October 24, 2011

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    Women in CAR are entitled to inherit the possessions and wealth of her husband if he dies. Seragaza Alima stood up for those rights. Photo: John Cunningham/Mercy Corps Photo: law_school.jpg
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    Martine Otto leads the Association of Widows and Orphans in Bangui. They provide legal advice and skills training to widows and abused women. Photo: John Cunningham/Mercy Corps Photo: orphans.jpg

Even in Bangui, the capital city of the Central African Republic, the power supply is unstable, water is scarce and there are few paved streets. Life is challenging for the five million people who live in this country.

But more than many other places in the world, it's women who face a particular challenge here: oppression and abuse at the hands of their own men.

The country's rigid gender roles leave women with no education, no income and no decision-making power within the home — even as they carry all the responsibility for domestic work and child-rearing. Women are held up to impossible standards in service of their husbands. This extreme power imbalance creates a breeding ground for physical, sexual and mental abuse.

At the same time, the country has traditionally done little to address and prevent gender-based violence. If a woman is brave enough to report her abuse and leave, she has few resources for recovery — and even fewer options to make a living without a man's financial support. This is about as tough as life gets.

But Mercy Corps is doing two things to help these women: First, we partner with the Association des Femmes Juristes de Centrafrique (AFJC) to support abused women and widows and help them navigate the complicated legal system in CAR. Second, we provide them training and investment to open their own small businesses and earn their own living, ending their dependence on men to build a better life.

Refuge in harsh circumstances

During my visit to the Central African Republic I spent time at one of the four counseling centers that Mercy Corps helped establish with AFJC. CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world; it is landlocked, with weak infrastructure and surrounded by unstable neighbors. The people here have endured a legacy of armed conflict, poor governance and corruption.

These centers, opened in Bangui, Bouar, Bambari and Bangassou in 2010, are some of the only places where women can find refuge — and strength — in the face of terrible hardship. Here they can receive legal assistance, psychological support, medical referrals and emergency food, hygiene supplies and shelter as needed.

Sometimes women may not be physically abused, but being kept in the dark about their legal rights leaves them victimized all the same. I met Seragaza Alima at the center after her husband died. His family had taken everything she had and left her destitute. Once she learned that every woman in the CAR is entitled to inherit the possessions and wealth of her husband if he dies, Seragaza was empowered to take her case to a tribunal. They found in her favor — a great victory.

Pursuit of justice

Though Seragaza is still struggling to get the family to return her possessions, her ruling is progress. As women win more cases, the message will get through that widowed and abandoned women have rights within the law — and that the law will back them.

The legal counselors at our centers also offer mediation services for women who are worried about being shunned by their communities or losing their main source of support. The process — used most frequently in cases of abandonment and child support, when there is not a life-threatening risk of violence — educates both parties on on CAR laws and encourages behavior changes toward more equality.

Survivors of abuse, on the other hand, are provided a safe place to escape the danger, and our staff helps them navigate the complicated court system in pursuit of justice.

Spreading a sense of wellbeing

Later, I also met a group of women who, with training and support from Mercy Corps, had set up their own sewing business. Like Seragaza, they had lost everything, but now have many individual customers for the clothes they make and have just landed a contract to provide outfits for an entire local school.

Recognizing that income can equal independence, the centers also help women learn the skills and get the supplies to start businesses like sewing, making soap, and selling cakes and palm oil. These ventures require only a small amount of capital, but quickly provide women with their own money, allowing them to put their new knowledge into practice and protect their rights.

As the program also educates local authorities and health personnel about issues of gender-based violence and how to help victims, these women are increasingly not alone. Things are changing here. Slowly, but they are changing.