Crisis in Cote d’Ivoire: What Impact on Women?

On 28 November 2010, Côte d’Ivoire held a second round of presidential elections, following a first round, which took place in October 2010 after several postponements. Fourteen candidates participated in the first round, and Alassane Ouattara and Laurent Gbagbo, the two candidates who garnered the most votes, made it to the second round of the polls. Gbagbo is the incumbent president. After the elections, the Independent Electoral Commission declared Ouattara the winner, but these results were invalidated by the Ivorian Constitutional Court which declared his rival, Gbagbo, the president-elect of Côte d’Ivoire.

This precipitated a crisis in the country. Gbagbo ‘refused to yield to international pressure and withdraw from his position’ in favour of Ouattara, who was recognised by the entire international community.

Mata Coulibaly and Honorine Sadia Vehi Toure, the two women’s rights advocates whom we interviewed, explained how the population is experiencing this situation: ‘We are going through a crisis and this is very difficult. There is tension in the country. Our days are filled with uncertainty because at any moment, a strike can be called,’ said Coulibaly. Toure added: ‘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. So it is highly stressful and frustrating.’

The political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire has had major diplomatic, financial, economic and social repercussions on the population, including on women and the organisations that defend their rights.

Gbagbo’s refusal to step down has prompted several international organizations, including the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union and the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) to take punitive measures against him, his family and close friends, and the state.

IMPACT OF THE CRISIS ON THE DAILY LIVES OF IVORIANS

The economic cost of Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict between 2002 and 2007 was severe: the gross domestic product (GDP) per person dropped by 15 per cent between 2000 and 2006 and poverty consequently increased. Côte d’Ivoire’s rank in the Human Development Index (HDI) dropped from 154 in 1999 to 166 in 2007, and later rose to 149 in 2010. Before the post-electoral crisis, the economic outlook for Côte d’Ivoire seemed to have improved, with a growth of 3.8 per cent in 2009 and optimistic forecasts for an increase of revenue from cocoa and petroleum exports.

The current crisis aggravates a rather precarious situation and has accentuated the impoverishment of the population. It has had a serious impact on the daily lives of Ivorian households, causing prices of essential products to rise sharply and encouraging speculation. As Toure emphasised: ‘Market prices have soared so much that some essential products such as oil, sugar, meat and onions are difficult to obtain. This is a real hardship for households. Before the crisis, many female-headed households could only afford one meal a day, so one can only imagine how much more difficult it is now for those families. Everyone is suffering.’

Coulibaly added: ‘Life seems to go in slow motion. Prices have soared. For example, sometimes there is a shortage of natural gas. A quantity of coal that previously cost CFAF100 now costs CFAF200. A kilo of ‘oignon dur’* has increased from CFAF450 to CFAF1,000 while onions from Niamey have increased from CFAF600 to CFAF1,500, and a kilo of beetroots from CFAF1,900 to CFAF3,000. These examples illustrate the impact of this crisis on the shopping basket and this price increase has a tangible impact on the living conditions of Ivorians. Salaries remain the same although prices are surging. This situation forces women to economize more in order to feed their families. Regardless of whether it is a woman or man who is the head of household, everyone has similar difficulties to overcome.’ Sophie confirmed that some food prices have doubled, while those of other products, such as oil, have tripled. She said that it is extremely difficult for middle-income households to feed themselves because everything has become so expensive.

The situation is no different in other cities and towns in the country. Coulibaly stated: ‘The current crisis has affected the whole Ivorian territory. In Korhogo in the north, Bouaké in the centre of the country, and Man and Duokoué in the west, food prices have almost doubled. The population is tired and is growing poorer every day. In addition, the private sector is threatened with redundancies, which could lead to famine for parts of the population. We have just learned that with the closure of the Abidjan and San Pedro ports, we will run out of gas in a few days. Côte d’Ivoire exports all its products. Another concern is that HIV/AIDS patients are no longer provided with anti-retroviral drugs and this has resulted in a proliferation of the disease and the aggravation of existing cases.’

Toure paints a similar picture of the situation, stating: ‘Impoverishment is felt by everyone throughout the territory. Before the elections, the country had not yet unified and therefore in the central, northern and western areas, the living conditions were already poor. The south was not spared, but it suffered to a lesser degree. But now I can assure you that now no area is better than another. Whether it be towns, villages, urban or rural areas, it is the same unbearable situation all over.’

VIOLENCE, RIGHTS AND SECURITY VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATES

After the first, relatively peaceful round of elections at the end of October 2010, reports of violence and abuse in different regions of the country began to emerge. These incidents indicated a serious deterioration of the general human rights situation and are a reminder of the atrocities committed during the last decade. African, European and American human rights organisations, in particular Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, have repeatedly sounded the alarm about the situation.

The United Nations Human Rights Council held a special session on Côte d’Ivoire in Geneva on 23 December 2010, during which the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a speech and the High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay strongly condemned the human rights violations committed in Côte d’Ivoire. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has also voiced its concerns about the situation.

Most of the violence reported to date is carried out during night raids led by the security forces and other groups in the neighbourhoods of Abidjan that are considered to be predominantly populated by Ouattara’s supporters. Human rights organisations have noted a series of kidnappings under similar circumstances. The victims of these kidnappings were declared missing or were found dead. Coulibaly confirmed this stating: ‘Acquaintances of ours have been kidnapped.’ According to Sophie, these are ‘raids that are violent, ethnic-based and politically motivated, targeted against individuals or groups of people whose neighbours have informed on them. The perpetrators are mercenaries who are paid to commit these murders.’

According to independent sources, human rights and women’s rights activists are living in a state of constant anxiety with respect to their safety. An experienced civil society advocate, who requested to remain anonymous, told IRIN: ‘I have been in hiding ever since being threatened over two weeks ago. Sometimes, it looks as though the situation is about to calm down. This is often the impression in the daytime, but one never knows what will happen once night falls.’ Toure confirmed: ‘We are working within a context of fear. We are truly sad about what is happening in our country. We cannot carry out our work openly for fear of reprisals. In spite of this, we are working, relying on God, and hoping that our country will rapidly overcome this situation.’ Coulibaly stated: ‘As a representative of the Democracy and Human Rights Fund (FDDH), I do not feel safe.’

IMPACT OF THE CRISIS ON WORK ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS

The punitive sanctions imposed on Côte d’Ivoire have had a very negative impact on non-governmental organisations that depend mainly on international funds for their survival. Toure explained that most of their financial partners in the United Nations system and the World Bank have closed their offices, which has in turn forced the NGOs to suspend most of their activities. Furthermore, due to political instability, it is increasingly difficult to operate as normal. Coulibaly stated: ‘nothing is sure. We have to tailor our plans according to how events evolve. We are afraid to go to work and sometimes we receive information or hear rumours that cause us to stay away from work.’

OTHER RAMIFICATIONS OF THE CRISIS: THE WIDENING OF THE DIVISION

The riots that broke out in September 2002 in Côte d’Ivoire divided the country between the south, run by the Gbagbo government, and the north, controlled by rebel forces led by Guillaume Soro, the current prime minister in the Ouattara administration. However, in 2008, after signing the Ouagadougou Agreement, the country began a reunification process, which led to the consensual organisation of the recent presidential elections.

However, some people are afraid that the alliance between Soro and Ouattara will cause a revival of the divisions, and will introduce a religious dimension to the divide. Nonetheless, it should be emphasized that there are different opinions on this subject, as highlighted by Toure. ‘No matter what is being said, the people in Côte d’Ivoire do not promote division,’ she said. ‘It is the politicians who have put us into this situation because of their personal interests. In the south, there are Christians and Muslims, and there are also people from the north, and we live together in harmony, at least those who have understood that division does not suit us, which is most of us. The same is true in the north. Therefore, there is no real division in Côte d’Ivoire, even if this is what they want you to believe. Ivorians have suffered through ten years of crisis. In the end, everyone was tired of this. Our will to leave it behind was shown by the high voter turnout in the elections: 83 per cent in the first round and over 70 per cent in the second round.’ However, Coulibaly does not agree: ‘the division is inevitable. The politicians accuse the people of the north of being rebels. Women are divided in the markets. Some pro-Gbagbo market women tell their pro-Ouattara counterparts to ask their leader to build them their own market.’

The current situation in Côte d’Ivoire is worrying. The Ivorian population, which underwent almost a decade of crisis, strongly desires that a peaceful outcome to this situation be found quickly for the benefit of everyone. Human and women’s rights organisations are particularly affected because funding opportunities for their work are becoming scarce. Furthermore, growing fears for their personal safety reduce their capacity to engage, and very few of them dare to openly express their analysis of the situation. Coulibaly confided to AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development) that, as far as she knew, no public action has been undertaken by human rights organisations and that only the Civil Society Agreement of Côte d’Ivoire (CSCI), which is a leading organisation in the country, has made proposals for a solution. Other organisations prefer not to issue statements because they do not share the same point of view or analysis of the situation. However, Toure stated that there are discreet initiatives being carried out by around 20 organisations and women’s networks to encourage the two protagonists to protect the lives of women and children, and to seek a peaceful outcome to the crisis.

This article was first published by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development.
* Literally ‘hard onion’ – a variety of onion common in Cote d’Ivoire.