Their homeland has been ripped apart by some of the most brutal sectarian violence in the world.
Yet in the unlikeliest of circumstances, Muslim and Christian women of the Central African Republic — one of the least-developed nations on earth — are now coming together to try to repair the damage.
It won’t be easy.
Coup, then civil war
Civil war erupted between members of the two religions after a coup in 2013.
More than six years later, the country is on the brink of famine, and 14 rebel groups control 80 percent of the country.
An abundance of precious minerals, along with porous national borders, make controlling rebels’ arms supplies and contraband shipments nearly impossible.
Even the presence of United Nations forces and an early-2019 peace accord have not been able to rein in rebel activity.
Yet there are signs of progress.
The Central African Republic is one of the world’s worst places to be a woman, not least because of mass rape campaigns in the early years of the civil war.
Now, a new, internationally supported criminal court has begun prosecuting militiamen accused of, among other crimes, the targeted rape of women in opposing communities.
In addition to the physical and psychological trauma, rape victims are also often abandoned by their partners and shunned by their families.
Children born out of rape are also social outcasts.
In response, Central African women are taking action.
Florence Atanguere, a Christian, and Madina Sajdo, a Muslim, found themselves together in a refugee camp in the capital, Bangui, just two among hundreds of thousands of people.
Setting an example for others to follow, they formed Femme Debout (Woman Standing), a group now numbering some 175 Christian and Muslim war widows.
The collective, backed by the United Nations, teaches skills and helps women start and manage small businesses.
In a male-dominated society, they face an uphill climb — but the paychecks they bring home for their families are hard to argue with.
Baking for peace
Meanwhile, in the northern village of Bamingui, women are baking their way to peace and economic stability.
Yvette Abaka, like Florence Atanguere, formed a small collective of female victims of the war, and their bread is a hit among local Muslims as well as Christians.
Abaka, who is Christian, has moved on from the anti-Christian violence perpetrated by militia men in the war.
And like Femme Debout, the Abaka bakery collective, which is supported by the European Union, is also overturning gender norms.
One young mother told THe Guardian: “The only opportunity we have to make any money by ourselves … I do this to help myself and to help my family … If I have some money and my husband does not, I can intervene and support him. It is making our relationship more equal. I don’t have to depend on him. I have more strength in the family.”
Back in Bangui, Florence Atanguere describes these female activisits as “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.”