In a dusty yard on the outskirts of the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, a group of women sit together. They meet here every week to check on each other and to discuss their problems and triumphs. Leading them is Florence Atanguere, a formerly displaced Central African widow.
“For us women, this association is the only way for us to be able to stand up,” says the 51-year-old mother of six.
Florence is referring to Femme Debout, or ‘Women Standing’, a group comprised of mostly war widows and orphans who are taking a stand against the traumatic effects of the Central African Republic’s protracted conflict.
When sectarian conflict between Muslim and Christian armed groups spread across the country in 2013, Florence was tremendously affected.
“I was screaming and shouting. They pointed a gun at me to shut me up.”
Six years ago, her home was attacked by armed gunmen who stabbed her brother to death after he refused to give them a car. They also beat up her visually impaired mother, injuring her severely.
“I was screaming and shouting. They pointed a gun at me to shut me up,” she recalls, visibly shaken by the memory of that fateful December day.
As the militants ran amok, Florence grabbed her children, her brother’s three children and her elderly mother and fled towards the site for internally displaced people (IDPs) by Bangui’s international airport. Like them, most of the displaced at the site had witnessed terrible acts of violence including brutal killings of family members and appalling sexual violence towards women.
The country’s conflict has forced over a million people from their homes – nearly 600,000 people are displaced inside the country and a similar number have crossed into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo.
Florence and her family eventually made it to a camp where a few months later, her elderly mother succumbed to her injuries and died. The profound loss, coupled with the grim conditions at the camp, where she lived for the next three years, made Florence desperate for a strong support system.
It was during those years in the camp that she gathered around her the first members of Femme Debout. Among the first women to join Florence, who is Christian, was Madina Sadjo, a Muslim widow and survivor of the conflict.
Forcibly separated from her husband during an attack in her hometown, Madina was devastated after learning of his death. Florence helped her cope with her grief and the two women soon became close friends.
“This group saved my life. Because of them, I now have hope for the future.”
“I went to fetch some water in the camp one morning,” recalls the 53-year-old. “I was crying so much I had to stop and sit beneath a tree. That’s when Florence saw me.”
With Florence’ help, Madina was able to slowly deal with her pain. Femme Debout has also helped – giving her capital to start a cake and coffee business so she could put her children through school.
“This group saved my life. I felt so helpless before and had to overcome so much,” she adds. “Because of them, I now have hope for the future.”
Supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, through its partner agency PARET, the association has 175 members, brought together in an act of collective healing. The members learn different skills and contribute 600 Central African Francs (about US$1) to their investment kitty. A small sum is added to the emergency reserve, which is available to any member in dire need of funds, payable over time, interest free.
The group plays a crucial role in an environment where women who have borne the brunt of years of war, often face discrimination and the risk of sexual violence.
“Women here are seen as inferior,” explains Florence. “But little by little, we are getting together to fight back.”
“These women are my blood, my sisters, my mothers and my daughters. We are all Central Africans.”
Above all, the group fosters a spirit of entrepreneurship and independence by helping members develop new livelihoods. They own a small plot of land where they grow spring onions, lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables to sell at the local market. They also make soap and crafts and some of the women also have hair salons, while others have become skilled tailors.
For Florence, the strength and solidarity of the sisterhood she has gathered around her today has helped her cope with the trauma of that fateful December. Undeterred by any ethnic and religious lines fuelled by the war, her group continues to welcome both Christians and Muslims, while ensuring that each member can attain self-reliance, cope with her loss and heal.
“These women are my blood, they are my sisters, my mothers and my daughters. We are all Central Africans. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Muslim or Christian,” says Florence.