The Ivory Crisis

The situation in the Ivory Coast is horrific for Ivoirians. Since early 2010 there has been political strife, economic turmoil and civil unrest including unspeakable violence plaguing the Ivorian people. The country is now in a state of crisis. This current state of affairs is compounding the political instability suffered in the country since 2002, when a civil war divided the Ivory Coast into a rebel-held north and government-held south. Tensions subsided somewhat in 2007 when a peace agreement was signed however this calm only lasted until February of this year, when fighting resumed over an impasse on the presidential election results.

The civil war has left countless causalities. With violence and corruption running rampant throughout the country, many resources from policing, health care and education have become ineffective, consumed and inaccessible. Significantly, the lack of access to education is crippling the Ivorian people’s chances to achieve self-sufficiency. With almost half of their population living below the poverty line and the country’s growth primarily dependent on agricultural exports, there leaves few opportunities for people if there is a loss of confidence or demand in their markets. This vulnerability to market fluctuations necessitates a greater, more skilled labour force with sufficient human capital to cope with lulls in the market or loss of foreign investment as is the case now with investors holding back due to political turmoil.

Perhaps the most troublesome of these problems is the gruesome violence, specifically the sexual violence. This is targeted at so many young Ivorian women and is persistently used as a weapon of war. The stories are graphic, the reality is horrific and the consequences are long lasting. Additionally, women in the Ivory Coast must contend with very serious maternal health issues that are also taking an extremely heavy toll on mothers and their children, often with fatal costs. From high fertility and maternal morbidity rates to low rates of contraceptive usage, maternal health is an especially problematic concern for these women. As we will see, preventability and an overall deficiency best describe the state of maternal health in the Ivory Coast. By taking a brief cross-section of these issues we can gain perspective and understanding of the plight which the Ivorian people and especially their women, must endure.


The 2010 election had two front runners after the second round of polls; Mr. Alassane Ouattara and Mr. Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo was the incumbent president but after losing the elections refused to relinquish power to his internationally recognized rival Ouattara, who was declared the winner by the Independent Electoral Commission. These results were invalidated by the Ivorian Constitutional Court which declared Gbagbo as president elect of Cote d’Ivoire. Gbagbo however was ousted and arrested on grounds of polling fraud by the United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire and French troops. On May 6, 2011 Ouattara was sworn in as president of Cote d’Ivoire amidst heavy fighting that swelled in April and has continued to present with unimaginable violence. There have been reports of mass killings with numbers exceeding 900 confirmed deaths. The “widespread and indiscriminate attacks against civilians” as Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary General described it, are unacceptable human rights violations and deserve the attention of the global community.

Valarie Amos, who is also the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, has told of 5 million people who are in crisis with 130,000 people displaced in Abidjan alone. Many families have been trapped in their homes without food, while entire neighbourhoods have been without electricity and water for weeks. The lack of access to basic nourishment and electricity has become a crippling consequence of the civil unrest that plagues the Ivorian people as they endure the incessant nature of violence that has come to define the region over recent years. With food prices soaring, it is making it very difficult for people to avoid malnutrition. The World Food Program has taken notice of this problem and has reported raised malnutrition levels in Abidjan and around the country. With wages remaining stagnant through all of this, it is making survival extremely difficult for many female-headed households that were only able to afford one meal a day before the crisis began.

These women are being forced to economize even more now and with the threat of violence and other unconscionable acts targeting women outside the home, there is only so much they can do on their own. The lack of access to water and electricity has also raised concerns that disease could spread through the country, further exacerbating the already perilous situation. One such threat in this regard is Cholera, which is already present in the Ivory Coast and is feared to be spreading rapidly as these unsanitary conditions make transmission of the disease much more communicable. Without the essentials of food, water and electricity many hospitals are unable to operate effectively, much less cope with the influx of people experiencing malnutrition and infection. To make the situation worse with regard to health care, there is a serious deficiency of doctors, medicine and other basic equipment.

Sadly many Ivorian people do not have access to education. Schools have been closed around the country now for months, leaving more than 800,000 children without access to education. This is a critical downfall of civil unrest, for it is the children who have done nothing wrong but are sporadically deprived of cognitive development. Without access to education these children’s mental progression is stunted. Without any guarantee of a cessation of the violence, their desire to be educated may dwindle and suddenly their interests turn to survival. Whether it be labouring or arming up with rebel factions, their futures are becoming less certain, more dangerous and void of the fruitful benefits that a solid education can offer. This inaccessibility to education is a very serious problem, for if it continues for longer periods of time, the effects of this lack of mental development will certainly show through in the country’s overall growth. If there is no human capital being produced then the country becomes dependent on other countries for their expertise and knowledge and goods and services. They lose their autonomy and are unable to achieve sustainable development on their own. This should not be allowed to happen. This is unacceptable. This deserves our attention and action.

Just looking at the facts it is easy to see how serious the situation has become. The literacy and school enrolment rates for the Ivory Coast before the recent civil unrest prevented hundreds of thousands of children from receiving an education. Notice the differences between males and females here. The overall literacy rate for men is at 60.8% while for women this figure plummets to only 39%. For girls over 15 years old the rate is still low at only 44%. This may be the result of the duration they are in school for, with men spending an average of 8 years, women if they are lucky are formally educated for only 5 years. Primary school enrolment figures show that there is a 79% ratio of female to male enrolment with fewer girls being signed up for school. There needs to be equitable standards brought into the thinking process when recruiting or attracting children to school. Girls grow up to become leaders in a great many capacities. African women are renowned for their resiliency over past generations and have proven that they can rise above the tragedies that have befallen them and have the determination and resolve to become successful, scholars, business people and innovators. They just need the chance to prove it. With a solid education they can and they will. Of this, I have faith.

It is with a heavy heart that I draw attention to the appalling indignities and savage violence that is being perpetrated on the women and girls of the Ivory Coast. Since December of 2010 the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has recorded a four-fold increase in the number of sexual survivors seeking help. Among the 140,000 mostly women and children that are fleeing to neighbouring countries, there have been many reports by the IRC of women being raped and suffering sexual abuse as they flee. These women are forced at the hands of armed men at checkpoints to strip while their possessions are seized. This is a painfully unfortunate and all too common syndrome of civil conflict in West Africa. Possibly the saddest part here, is that rather than seeing justice be done it is the victims who must bear the burden of responsibility and worse still are the ones who must endure the stigma of being a victim of sexual violence. This is not an affront to the rich Ivorian culture in general but rather to the deep seeded and systemic subordination of women in the developing world. The fact that women become targets as soon as civil unrest bears its nasty head or the fact that female survivors of sexual violence face rejection from their families and community alike is a testament to the fact that women here are treated as second class citizens at best.

An article from The Guardian described the story of a young 16 year old girl named Beatrice who bravely spoke of the shivering details of her capture and rape while fleeing her home. “Violence was everywhere” she said. “When they catch you, there’s little you can do. If you say no, they will beat you to death.” This story is one of many, although only small percentages have the courage to tell it. Of a 300 person discussion group, only 26 women told of their horrific encounters of sexual violence in the Ivory Coast. It is estimated that for every case of rape or abuse that is reported, between two and ten are not. This means that between 50 and 250 women in this group had been a victim of some form of sexual violence but were too frightened to tell their story. The Guardian documented the stories that were told including those of “brutal gang rapes and sexual attacks on wives and daughters that husbands and fathers were forced to watch, including the rape of a seven-year-old girl, of abductions and slavery.” The indignities these women spoke of were truly sickening. Two sisters explained that after being caught by armed men they were told; “you are going to Liberia to let Liberian men have you? We are going to enjoy you first.” The sisters were both brutally raped. When the women were asked to describe the difference between sexual slavery and rape they explained that rape was when they “just grab you and take you right away,” while sexual slavery was when they take you and “keeps you as his wife for a week.”

Women in the Ivory Coast find it especially difficult to lead their lives freely and with dignity. They are not protected by the state and its instruments as they should be. While there are some laws to protect women they are weak and not applicable to the acute circumstances of many women in the country. Violence against women is very common and not penalised. This includes no penalty for random acts of violence even spousal abuse. The law does prohibit rape, but does not recognize spousal rape. These are the type of discrepancies in the protection mechanisms that are effectively allowing a continuous reduction in the value of women throughout the Ivorian society. These values are becoming more and more ingrained as a result. To reaffirm this point one need not look any further than the prevalence of the barbaric practices of female genital mutilation (FGM). Despite being outlawed, this form of oppression is widely conducted in the Ivory Coast with estimates of 60% of Ivorian women having undergone this brutal procedure. This is simply not acceptable. Women deserve to be in control of their own sexual liberty and dignity instead of being branded, defiled and ostracized.

This sexual violence is taking an extremely heavy toll on the women of the Ivory Coast. Two well-known women’s rights advocates, Mata Coulibaly and Honorine Sadia Vehi Toure, have openly condemned the violence and have acknowledged the fact that their country is in a state of crisis, explaining that “this is a real crisis and we are under tremendous stress. We do not know what tomorrow will bring. The social situation is deteriorating day by day.” The country has been recovering from its last civil war in 2002 wherein their GDP per person dropped by 15% over the following 5 years. This current crisis has aggravated an already precarious situation and has significantly worsened the impoverishment of so many Ivorian people.

Beyond the grave economic conditions the people of the Ivory Coast must endure, there have been reports of violence and abuse in various regions of the country. Many individuals and organizations, from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to Hillary Clinton and the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court have all condemned the violence and voiced concerns about the current situation, yet kidnappings, rapes, assaults and murders are continuing throughout the country.

A key challenge in the Ivory Coast is maternal health for women. Everything from high fertility and maternal mortality rates to HIV and AIDS infections all contribute to a highly precarious environment for women’s health in the Ivory Coast. While these problems are great, the lack of human resources to address maternal health issues some might say is even greater. There are only 0.14 physicians and 0.48 nurses and midwives per 1,000 people. This is simply not enough to attend to the thousands of women who require maternal health care. With total fertility rates at 4.6 births per woman in 2008, there needs to be enough health professionals to help deliver the child, to help care for the mother and child in the days after giving birth and to treat any special issues that may arise as a result of birthing complications. The reason for this need is poor pregnancy outcomes. Institutional deliveries are not common with only 57% of women delivering a child with the assistance of skilled medical personnel. Women are unnecessarily dying as a result. There is a very high maternal mortality ratio of “470 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.” This shows that “access to and quality of emergency obstetric and neonatal care remains a challenge.” The need for human resources in maternal health in the Ivory Coast is serious and urgent.

This fertility rate of more than 4 children per woman is simply too high. The mothers cannot reasonably afford to provide nutrition, health, education and shelter for these children. This affects not only the “women and their children’s health but also their long-term education and employment prospects.” Women who are having children between the ages of 15 and 19 are finding that their children must face a higher risk of mortality and the young mothers themselves are also becoming more susceptible to a higher risk of morbidity and mortality. The use of modern contraception is not a widely held practice in the Ivory Coast with as few as 18% of women in the wealthiest quintile using modern contraception but the rate plummets to a staggeringly low 3% for women in the poorest income bracket. Similarly there is an 8% discrepancy between women in urban and rural areas, with the latter only seeing 5% usage. Clearly socioeconomic differences make a difference in people’s access and awareness of modern contraceptives but so too does education. Only 5% of women with no education use modern contraceptives as compared to 20% of women with secondary education or higher. This data clearly shows the benefit of education to women in the Ivory Coast.

With education they are more likely to know about and use modern contraceptive techniques, more likely to increase their income which is consistent with higher rates of contraceptive usage and are more inclined to take control of their reproductive liberty in an intelligent and empowering way. It is essential that these women and girls are educated about the benefits of small family sizes, about the impact of early marriage and child-bearing and about family planning awareness. Education is essential. Information is power. While HIV infection is on the decline in the Ivory Coast with 4.7% of the adult population infected in 2005, women still remain the most vulnerable with 6.4% of them living with the infection. If they were simply informed as to how the disease works and is transmitted these rates would surely fall, unfortunately they are not aware of prevention methods.

These are practical steps that can be taken and much of it can begin with increasing school enrolment of girls. Enlisting community leaders and women’s groups, formally educating the youth and driving maternal health campaigns are our most effective tools in combating many problematic but preventable health issues for Ivorian women. These are concerns that affect Ivorian women on a daily basis, whether the country is engulfed in a civil war or not. Naturally the constant violence and civil unrest makes health care more difficult to manage at the moment, but it should not stifle the thought process of collaborative and forward thinking that can lead to long term solutions.

The crisis in the Ivory Coast clearly entails more than just opposing factions warring for power. These consequences of the civil unrest have vast and long lasting implications. The economy is damaged because foreign investors do not have confidence putting their money into a place that is plagued by civil war. The country is not producing enough high skilled human capital to be self-sufficient. This is seen by the lack of human resources for maternal health and over the long term is a result of children not having access or enough time in school. The violence that is being carried out is the biggest inhibitor to peace and prosperity in the country. The appalling sexual violence being targeted and used as a weapon of war against the women is destroying the fabric of civil society in the Ivory Coast with heinous ramifications that will leave scares so deep that they will transcend generational gaps. The Ivory Coast is in desperate need of assistance. We must give the country its due attention in this time of crisis. Let us come together to shed light and actively collaborate to prevent this tragic period from escalating. Let us not stop there even. Let us help return the country to a place of opportunity. Let us help restore all the splendour and beauty of ivory back to this nation’s identity. The people of the Ivory Coast have a lot to offer if they are given the chance. Let us give them the opportunity that they deserve.


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