Aisha K.* considers her neighborhood “a prison with the sky as a roof.” Aisha is a Muslim woman living in PK5, a previously dense, vibrant commercial district named for its location 5 km from the center of the Central African capital city, Bangui. In late 2012, as the Central African Republic (CAR) was roiled by conflict following a coup orchestrated by predominantly Muslim “Seleka” rebels, Aisha’s district, a once shining example of cultural and religious coexistence in Bangui, became a deadly conflict zone. The overthrow of the central government by the Seleka rebels led to insecurity, a proliferation of violence and rape, and an ensuing power struggle that quickly took on religious undertones as the predominantly-Christian Anti-Balaka emerged to combat the Seleka. Sadly, the ethnic and religious diversity of Aisha’s home community made it a target for militants. On the morning of January 18th, 2014, members of the Anti-Balaka militia entered PK5 and during the ensuing attack, Aisha says, she was beaten and raped by 6 men.
Aisha says that in her community, victims feel shame and this prevents them from seeking assistance for the trauma they’ve experienced. But, she notes, “When free care and support are made available, women can find the courage to come forward.” In February 2016, at a time when insecurity prevented most humanitarian organizations from operating in PK5, Aisha attended an awareness session conducted by the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI) community-based paralegals. Aisha heard about the free and confidential services available through ABA ROLI’s legal aid clinics and asked the paralegals to show her where to go.
With support from the US Department of State Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), ABA ROLI strives to combat the trauma of rape by providing psychological counseling, referrals for medical care and a path towards justice for survivors and their families. ABA ROLI began providing services in Bangui in June 2015, and has since expanded to seven additional locations throughout CAR. At first, ABA ROLI was unable to reach the community of PK5, as it was considered a no-go zone in which armed skirmishes erupted regularly. But following the visit of Pope Francis in November 2015, and subsequent elections in December and February, the situation calmed sufficiently to permit ABA ROLI to begin offering legal support and related services.
To facilitate the introduction of legal support and psychosocial services, ABA ROLI recruited two community members from within PK5 to serve as paralegals. Beginning in May 2016, ABA ROLI also began convening meetings with local clerics, religious leaders, local government leaders and members of civil society, to introduce to them the types of assistance that ABA ROLI could provide. The ABA ROLI paralegals began speaking in markets and at community events to make the population aware of the free support available through the clinics for victims of gender based violence. Aisha was in attendance at one of these sessions and learned about the services that ABA ROLI provides. Aisha told ABA ROLI that many survivors do not speak out and seek justice because they fear being stigmatized. She credited ABA ROLI’s holistic care approach, which provides free psychosocial care and referrals for medical services, for making her comfortable with coming forward to seek assistance.
On Aisha’s first visit to ABA ROLI’s legal aid clinic in Bangui she was greeted by the staff psychologist, who counseled her and referred her for medical tests to alleviate Aisha’s fears that she had contracted an STI from her attackers. ABA ROLI victim support funds enabled Aisha to access a health center where testing revealed that she had no infections.
Aisha also met with an ABA ROLI Legal Aid Clinic Attorney, who recorded information about her attack and registered her case with the local police and courts. Aisha says she “was heard by the police investigator [because she was represented and] accompanied by ABA ROLI’s lawyer.” Aisha credits ABA ROLI’s pro bono legal services as the only reason that she was able to pursue her case, as she lacked the financial means to do so on her own. The police eventually identified one of the alleged perpetrators in a neighboring community and Aisha hopes that they will bring him to trial. Aisha thanked ABA ROLI, saying she is “very satisfied with the services offered by ABA ROLI to victims, especially for minority Muslim [populations].” “Before,” she says, “I was traumatized, but thanks to the help of [ABA ROLI’s] psychologist I can sleep soundly now and forget bit by bit the things that happened to me.”
To learn more about our work in CAR, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected].
* Aisha’s name has been changed to protect her identity.