Yalies who enjoyed chocolate treats on Valentines Day may have indirectly aided rebels in the Ivory Coast in committing sexual violence against women.

Semuteh Freeman ’08 and Maggie Mapondera ’09 held a “Blood Chocolate” drive in the Woolsey Rotunda on Thursday afternoon to encourage students to sign a petition against, and inform Yalies about, sexual violence against women in the Ivory Coast resulting from the sale of the cocoa beans to large American chocolate companies.

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Freeman, Mapondera and other volunteers asked students to read a flier about the current situation in the Ivory Coast, where rebels who control the nation’s lucrative cocoa sales stop automobiles at checkpoints, detain the women and force them into sexual submission, according to the flier.

Event organizers collected over 150 signatures from Yale students and faculty.

Freeman and Mapondera were inspired to organize the event after attending a January lecture delivered at Yale by Etelle Higonnet ’00 LAW ’05 of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, entitled “My Heart Is Cut: Sexual Violence by Rebels and Pro-Government Forces in Côte d’Ivoire.”

According to Freeman, after a bloody civil war from 2002 to 2004 over control of the cocoa production and sales in the Ivory Coast, the northern rebels took control of the profitable field.

“When you have control over cocoa production, you have control over the revenue,” said Freeman, adding that the rebels’ wealth protects them from state prosecution for raping women there.

Freeman and Mapondera said one of their goals in organizing the event was to introduce the issue to Yalies, most of whom are unaware of the evils behind the current cocoa trade, by exposing to the world the “organized, systematic violence” and sexual assaults committed by the rebel groups with the acceptance of the Ivorian government.

They also hoped to encourage students to eat fair-trade chocolate, which comes from environmentally sustainable sources, does not fund conflict and meets labor and developmental standards.

Companies such as Hershey’s and Nestle buy cocoa from the Ivory Coast, which is the world’s largest producer of cocoa. The country and its rebel groups use the money they obtain from these companies to purchase weapons that enable them to rape innocent women, Freeman said.

“We hope this will put pressure on chocolate companies and bring the issue to the forefront of the media,” she said.

Students and faculty interviewed who signed the petition said they understood the mission of Thursday’s event.

“I think that this is an important issue,” said Sarah Henderson, immigration specialist at the Office of International Students and Scholars. “The violence has got to stop.”

“For chocolate to fuel war and oppress people seems to go against everything chocolate should stand for,” Morgan Robinson ’08 said.

Most passersby who signed the petition said they had never heard of the violence in the Ivory Coast.

“I didn’t even know anything about this,” Constance Collins ’11 said. Nestle, Hershey’s and the other companies not engaging in fair trade practices in the Ivory Coast should be prevented from doing business in the area, she said after reading the flier.

According to Mapondera, there are currently numerous companies, such as Dagoba and Omanhene, producing chocolate that does not fund conflict and adheres to fair-trade standards.

Those who have a soft spot for chocolate can still enjoy chocolate — just not from the brands that do not engage in fair trade, Freeman and Mapondera pointed out.

“It’s more delicious, because it’s without the guilt,” Freeman said.

Thursday’s event encouraged students to sign petitions to chocolate companies that do not participate in fair trade, call their Congressional representatives and spread their awareness to others.

The event was sponsored by Pierson College, the Afro-American Cultural Center, the Council of African Studies and the Office of International Students and Scholars.

Later in the year, Freeman said, she and Mapondera hope to hold a screening of Higonnet’s film on her work in the Ivory Coast and to invite Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who represents the New Haven area, and other speakers to campus to participate in a panel on sexual violence in West Africa.