International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Women and girls: The backbone of the Central African Republic

Since war erupted in the Central African Republic in 2012, thousands of people have been killed and displaced—but the world has paid little attention. Some 1.6 million Central Africans are struggling to survive and more than 417,000 have fled to neighboring countries. Reports of sexual violence have increased dramatically.

The International Rescue Committee has remained in CAR, providing lifesaving aid that includes food, water, clothing, shelter, sanitation and mobile health clinics. The IRC also provides counseling, medical referrals, emergency kits and other support to women who have been forced to flee the violence.

The IRC's technical advisor Catherine Poulton sat with the women and girls in CAR who face the stark reality of assault, sexual violence and kidnapping on a daily basis. Here are their stories.

Carrying water from distant wells. Walking miles to collect firewood. Cooking. Looking after children. Managing small businesses. This is the daily life of displaced Central African women. Most families must share a tent with several others, forced to create a semblance of privacy by building makeshift barriers from found scraps.

The women also tell me that these daily tasks put them in danger. In danger of assault, of sexual violence, of kidnapping. I listen to them and marvel at their resilience. I lived here a few years ago. On these several visits I have done this year to this war torn country, I am once again confirmed in my deep belief they are the backbone of this country.

Sitting with these women, between the banter and the sharing, I try to understand how the daily tasks most of us take for granted can be safety risks. Together, we draw a map of their community in the sand using a wooden stick.

Their community, of course, is not a neighborhood or village as we might envision it but one of the haphazard camps where thousands of displaced Central Africans now live. We pick leaves from the trees nearby and the women place them on map to mark spots where they felt safe. They place stones where they feel endangered.

There are discussions, debates, but the striking fact is, there are very few leaves on the homemade map, and plenty of stones. Latrines, water points, vegetable patches—some are outside the camps, some inside; some are outside the tents, some inside—but all are areas women and girls feel unsafe day and night. Nowhere is safe.

Boys grab girls in the tents at night, women won’t go to the toilet for fear of assault, every trip to collect firewood is perilous in these times of conflict.

Yet do Central African women stop performing these chores? No. Like so many of their counterparts all over the world, they find ways to minimize risk by traveling in groups, by using buckets for personal needs, by making improvised locks for the tents to discourage intruders.

Sometimes outside organizations support these women; more often than not, they are on their own. I ask myself: are we, as a humanitarian community, complacent because these women remain resilient, or is it that we fail to listen to their voices as they explain what they need? I think the latter, and it is time we listen, hear and support them. It’s time we help them not only to survive but, against all odds, to thrive.

Central African women are telling us what they need. Can we amplify their voices? They cannot wait much longer. We must act now.

IRC's work with women and girls

Women and girls, working together with their communities, create a world where they are valued, free from violence and exercise their full power and rights to promote their own safety, equality and voice—this is the International Rescue Committee’s vision.

In honor of "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence," we share examples of 16 ways the IRC works with women and girls.

1 comment


Thanks. This is such a good

Thanks. This is such a good article. We used to live in CAR, too, and I recognise what you are saying in my friends there. They don't deserve what's happened to them, and I can only be grateful for you and others who are doing something to make a difference!