Olga’s voice trembles as she describes what happened: "Yesterday afternoon I left home to go and look for a bit of yucca in a field near the airport,” she says. “On my way there, two men armed with machetes stopped me and told me to sit down. One covered my eyes and the other began to undress me.”
Stories like this are common in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic (CAR), where sexual assault is an epidemic. In 2018, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams cared for 4,000 survivors of sexual violence across the country. In our project at the Bangui Community Hospital alone, more than 800 people have been treated in the first half of this year.
In CAR, as in many other countries, sexual violence is a taboo subject. Victims of sexual assault are often forbidden from talking about it due to the shame it could bring on their family. Some of the local languages don’t even have a specific word for rape.
"I thought about committing suicide several times,” says Olga. “I felt ashamed when I walked down the street and I thought everyone was looking at me. I can’t sleep at night.” She’s now being treated by an MSF psychologist at Bangui’s Community Hospital, where we run a project for victims of sexual assault known as Tongolo, which means “star” in the Sango language.
Bringing care to patients
Though years of conflict and instability contribute to the high rates of sexual violence in CAR, many sexual assaults are committed between neighbors or within families, says Beatriz García, coordinator of the Tongolo project. “In most cases the problem is resolved amicably in the community or between families to avoid bringing shame upon the family—forgetting that this is a medical emergency that must be taken care of," she explains.
The project is open to the entire population but emphasizes treatment of children and men, because these cases are often less visible and tend to be more complex. “In CAR, there are many men who have suffered sexual assault but who are too scared to speak up,” says García. “They are reluctant to ask for help. There is huge pressure in the community, with a very violent stigmatization.”