Literacy vs gender-based violence: aiding survivor recovery in the Central African Republic

A woman is learning Arithmetic for the first time of her life, during a literacy lesson at the Women’s Home in Bria. Credit: Aurélie Godet, Oxfam

Nadine, 43 years old, is learning Arithmetic for the 1st time of her life, during a literacy lesson given by Oxfam in Bria. After her husband passed away, her in-laws wanted to marry her by force. Photo: Aurélie Godet/Oxfam

In the Central African Republic (CAR), a woman is a victim of sexual and gender-based violence almost every hour. A limited number of survivors can access medical and psychological support offered by specialized organizations. For most women overcoming the trauma and moving on is a challenge. Oxfam is in Bria, at the heart of the country, to support women through literacy classes to help them read, write and empower them.

At the Women’s Home in Bria, the atmosphere is studious. Today’s program includes reading, writing, and Arithmetic lessons. But those taking these classes, sitting on wooden desks whitened by chalk, are no ordinary students. Most of them are women. All are victims of violence. They are taking part in a literacy program initiated by Oxfam, in partnership with the Women Leaders Association of Bria, a group made up of the heads of 80 local women’s organizations.

“(Initially) the Women Leaders Association was an organization headed by men, because the women couldn’t read. We trained them. And for the past two years, they are the ones leading the classes!”

Séraphine Nbanga-Gonzhy
who heads Oxfam’s protection work in Bria

Teaching literacy to survivors

For a period of three months, three times per week, 92 women and 8 men will take part in these lessons. “85 of them are victims of gender-based violence, including rape, sexual assault, or forced marriages. The other 15 are victims of physical assault, including torture or armed robbery,” explains Séraphine Nbanga-Gonzhy, who heads Oxfam’s protection work in Bria.

Ngbanga-Gonzhy says that it was the Women Leaders Association of Bria which requested Oxfam undertake such a program. Work began in 2015. “(Initially) the Women Leaders Association was an organization headed by men, because the women couldn’t read. We trained them. And for the past two years, they are the ones leading the classes!” Since the project began, over 400 people have learned how to read and write.

Survivors of gender-based and other types of violence learn how to write the letter “e” at the Women’s Home in Bria, Central African Republic. Godet, Oxfam

Survivors of gender-based and other types of violence learn how to write the letter “e” during a literacy lesson at the Women’s Home in Bria, in the heart of the Central African Republic.

Maïmouna Baroud, the president of Bria’s Women Leaders Association, keeps an eye on the classes. She explains: “Sometimes, women encourage men and children to take part in a conflict, to seek vengeance for the loss of their loved ones! But when you know how to read, you end up avoiding such conflicts. For it is ignorance that leads to violence!”

Words of empowerment

Learning how to read also increases the socio-economic opportunities of the survivors. Often, women – girls – are married off when they are 13, and never get an opportunity to go to school. By learning how to read, they become empowered, and are able to start small businesses, making and selling soap, oil, and doughnut-like fried dough called “beignet”. In fact, when the three-month literacy class is completed, participants receive a small kit to help them start their own business, including basic training in accounting and management.

“For it is ignorance that leads to violence!”

Maïmouna Baroud
President of Bria’s Women Leaders Association

Women are particularly affected by the conflict CAR has been embroiled in since 2013. Fatima*, 25 years old, has been raising four children on her own since her husband joined the ranks of an armed group. To meet the needs of her family, she goes into the bush to find firewood which she then sells. One day, she was stopped by armed groups, and was raped.

After receiving medical attention, she was referred to Oxfam. She explains: “When I was small, my parents sent me to the market with my sister. I regret not having gone to school, and I will do everything in my power to make sure they [her children] learn how to read and write. They need good opportunities!”

Her face lightens up, and she whispers: “What I like about these classes is that I forget that I am sad. I talk to Muslims and Christians. I stop feeling lonely.”

Fatima* writes the letter “e” on a small blackboard, during a literacy lesson at the headquarters of Bria’s Women Leaders Association, CAR. Credit: Godet, Oxfam

Fatima* writes the letter “e” on a small blackboard, during a literacy lesson at the headquarters of Bria’s Women Leaders Association, in the heart of the Central African Republic. She was raped by a member of an armed group while she was collecting firewood in the bush.

Fatima and other beneficiaries of the literacy program are far from being the only ones affected by violence in CAR. This country of 4.9 million inhabitants has been wrecked by violence since 2013, and civilians pay the price. According to UN data, a gender-based violence incident is reported every 60 minutes. Over 90 percent of the victims are women and girls.

* Name has been changed

Photos: Aurélie Godet/Oxfam