By Kieran Guilbert

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children in Ivory Coast bear the brunt of sexual violence in a culture where rape is widely considered "insignificant" and perpetrators usually go unpunished, activists say.

Two in three rape victims in the West African nation are young girls, according to a recent U.N. report, which recorded some 1,130 cases of rape between 2012 and 2015.

Yet the number of rape cases is likely to be far higher, the U.N.'s Ivory Coast mission (UNOCI) said, as many victims do not come forward due to the fear of retaliation and stigma within their communities and a lack of confidence in the legal system.

While Ivory Coast has recovered from two civil wars, in 2002 and 2011, to boast one of Africa's fastest growing economies, years of conflict have fueled a culture of violence, where rape is rife, according to the UNOCI.

"Rape is considered banal by a lot of people, they claim sex is an obligatory rite of passage for every woman," said Jean Claude Kobena of the Abidjan-based group SOS Violences Sexuelles.

"They think no one should be imprisoned for an act they see as so insignificant," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Children are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence because so many roam the streets, out of school and forced to work because of widespread poverty, child rights experts say.

Almost half of the 20 million population of Ivory Coast live in poverty, and six out of every 10 children of secondary school age are not in education, according to data from the World Bank.

"Millions of kids are out of school and on the streets, relying on odd jobs to survive, which exposes them to abuse and rape," said Save the Children's country director Famari Barro.

NO MORE 'MISDEMEANORS'

Rape victims and their families are often not aware of how to report the crime, or cannot afford to do so, activists say.

Victims may have to travel far to a court, and they must first obtain a medical certificate - which can cost up to 50,000 CFA francs ($85) - to prove they have been raped before pressing charges, said the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF).

Most rape cases in Ivory Coast are therefore settled out of court, usually without the victim's consent, with the intention of avoiding stigma and preserving peace within communities, and sparing the suspected rapist from jail, the UNOCI's report said.

"For victims to seek justice, the culture of settlements must end, allowing them to speak up and be referred to support services," said UNICEF deputy representative Christina de Bruin.

While investigations were opened in 90 percent of rape cases documented by the UNOCI, less than a fifth led to a conviction.

In all 203 cases that ended in conviction, the perpetrators were found guilty of a lesser offense than rape - often indecent assault - which is a common legal practice, the report said.

"Although seen as a way for victims to access justice and facilitate a prompt judgment, this practice minimizes the gravity of rape," the UNOCI said.

Ivory Coast should revise its criminal code, which punishes rape without defining it, provide victims with free legal aid and hold special court sessions for rape cases, the UNOCI said.

The justice ministry this week in a confidential document seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation issued a notice telling the authorities not to recategorize rapes as 'misdemeanors'.

Issued a week after the UNOCI report, it also says sexual offences must be fully investigated and prosecuted, even if out-of-court settlements are reached or complaints are withdrawn.

The Ivorian government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

"Children have the right to be protected from these criminal acts which can cause lifelong incurable wounds," said de Bruin.

($1 = 596.8100 CFA francs)

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)