DAKAR, 21 October 2008 (IRIN) - Rapes of women and girls are common in western Côte d'Ivoire and generally go unpunished, said residents of the region.
"These days nearly every time we hear of armed robberies in homes, on the roads or on plantations, we hear of rape," said a resident of the western town of Duékoué some 500km from the commercial capital Abidjan, who wanted to remain anonymous.
"We hear of two, three, four rapes every day."
With the proliferation of arms since conflict broke in 2002, unprecedented violent crime continues to plague many areas of Côte d'Ivoire where a March 2007 peace deal marked a formal end to fighting.
In some parts of the north, attacks by Kalashnikov-wielding men - nearly unheard of before the conflict - are frequent, residents say.
Monika Bakayoko-Topolska, gender-based violence coordinator with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Côte d'Ivoire, told IRIN: "We certainly are seeing increased reports of rape over the past year and a half or so." She called rape "one of the biggest problems in the west," adding that sexual violence is a problem throughout the country.
Bakayoko-Topolska said it is not clear whether rape cases have risen sharply in the west or whether more people are reporting the crime after an expansion of education campaigns in the region.
She and some residents of western Côte d'Ivoire told IRIN perpetrators of rape are rarely prosecuted.
"Rapes are encouraged," the woman in Duékoué said. "Because there is no punishment." Residents of Duékoué and the nearby city of Man told IRIN that in some cases authorities harassed or ignored women who reported rape, and that even if pursued, alleged attackers are generally released after a brief detention.
Bakayoko-Topolska said pressure from families of both the victim and perpetrator to settle a case outside the formal justice system is one of many factors commonly discouraging women from filing legal complaints.
"It's still very rare here that someone gets put in jail for rape," she said. "Community leaders should accept that because rape and physical violence are prohibited by national law, these crimes should be reported to the police rather than informally dealt with in the village."
The Duékoué woman told IRIN many women are afraid to go after their attackers because they do not feel supported by law enforcement authorities. "It is not safe here [in Duékoué]," she said. "People are constantly victims of violent crime and assailants operate with utter impunity."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his latest report on Côte d'Ivoire, dated 13 October, expressed concern about authorities' failure to go after criminals. "The low level of prosecution [for violent crimes] has heightened the pervading sense of impunity in the country."
Residents of Duékoué and Man told IRIN one response has been the creation of neighbourhood vigilante groups. But one resident said a recent rape was perpetrated by a youth who belonged to a self-defence group.
Many western towns hit by violent crime are in the former buffer zone between the government security forces in the south and rebels in the north, which has been vacated by international forces over the past year after the 2007 peace deal.
UN Secretary-General Ban said in the 13 October report: "The insecurity in the western and northern parts of the country, as well as in parts of the former [buffer] zone of confidence, remains of great concern and has impacted negatively on the full enjoyment of human rights."
He added: "Increasing indiscriminate attacks by unidentified highway robbers, coupled with violence and rape of women, pose a daily threat to the right to life, to physical integrity and to the safety and security of persons and goods."
The report said the situation is most serious along the 35-km Duékoué-Bangolo road in the west.
"A sex thing"
The Duékoué woman told IRIN the closest court women there can turn to in rape cases is about 100km away in Daloa and this puts many families off. She said local social workers have told the UN and international NGOs the town needs a local tribunal.
IRC has recommended the Ivorian government establish family support units within national police forces similar to those in Sierra Leone, which is emerging from an 11-year civil war. The units comprise police officers and social workers trained to handle sexual violence cases.
"What is needed most in Côte d'Ivoire is a change in attitudes and practices related to all types of violence against women and girls," Bakayoko-Topolska told IRIN. "Men and women alike can begin this by condemning violence and by showing solidarity with survivors in demanding justice."
The Duékoué resident said ramping up the legal means to go after perpetrators might deter some people, but rape will continue. "I think many people here do not see rape as a crime; they see it just as a sex thing."