UN peacekeepers patrol the streets of the Central African Republic (CAR) capital of Bangui. Picture: AP

Johannesburg – Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a Thursday report has accused armed groups in the Central African Republic (CAR) of using rape and sexual slavery as a tactic of war across the country during nearly five years of conflict.

HRW’s 176-page report "'They Said We Are Their Slaves," Sexual Violence by Armed Groups in the Central African Republic,’ outlines how commanders have tolerated widespread sexual violence by their forces and in some cases appear to have ordered it or committed it themselves.

The cases of 305 women raped, and sexual slavery carried out against 296 women and girls, by members of the Muslim Seleka and the Christian anti-balaka militias between 2013 and mid-2017 are documented in the report.

HRW interviewed 296 survivors,  52 of them girls at the time of the attacks, as well as government officials, police, medical personnel, United Nations officials, and others.

However, these appear to represent the tip of the iceberg as due to the stigma involved in their cultural environment, victims and survivors are hesitant to report the attacks and therefore HRW believes the number of victims is actually much higher.

The rights group pointed out that most of the abuses documented not only broke CAR law but constituted war crimes, torture and in some cases were crimes against humanity.

But to date not a single member of any armed group is known to have been arrested or tried for committing sexual violence.

Survivors reported being burned, whipped, tied up, threatened with death and raped by up to 10 or more men during a single incident.

The resulting injuries included smashed teeth, broken bones, internal injuries and head trauma.

The women and girls were also often raped in front of their children or other family members and were also forced to watch as their husbands and other male relatives were mutilated and killed.

Thirteen rape survivors, three of whom were children at the time of the attacks, said they became pregnant from the rapes.

Some of the victims were held as sex slaves for up to 18 months and forced to perform duties including cooking, cleaning and collecting food and water.
 
Following their traumatic experiences, many of the women and girls suffered incapacitating physical injury and illness, including HIV, as well as suicidal thoughts and loss of livelihoods or access to education.

Most had not received post-rape medical or mental health care – including medication to prevent HIV and unwanted pregnancy – due to a lack of medical facilities, the cost of services or transport to facilities, and misconceptions about available services.
 
Furthermore, the stigma and rejection they suffered within their societies included their husbands or partners abandoning them, family members blaming them and being taunted publicly after the rapes.