Who Will Heal Congo’s Women?
The attacks are sadistic. The brutality with which they are carried out, defy comprehension. Impunity has replaced law and order and it appears the international community has lost its mandate to stem the continuous and gruesome use of rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hence, I wonder, who will heal Congo’s women?
The number of days, organisations and declarations set aside to celebrate and recognise women around the world keeps growing, from International Women’s Day to Mother’s Day to UN Women to The African Women’s Decade (2010-2020.) Amidst our celebrations and events held in different regions of the globe to acknowledge the contributions of women to society, hundreds of thousands of women in Eastern Congo are either being attacked or recovering from the ills of endemic sexual violence. To date, over 250,000 rapes have been reported since the protracted war, which started over 13 years ago and has cost more than 5million lives.
Rape victims are grotesquely mutilated with guns, bayonets and run the risk of becoming HIV positive, leaving them destroyed. These are the women, Heal Africa wants to help. Charité’s eyes were destroyed so she would not be able to recognise her rapists. Mary was raped but cannot remember the number of men who raped and stuck corn cobs down her vagina, which led to infections. It has been impossible to repair her fistula due to her weak condition. These are some of the horror stories beyond human comprehension, coming out of Heal Africa, an organisation based in Goma, North Kivu, and known for its work in combating sexual violence in the region. It is one of two internationally renowned centres helping women, the other being the Panzi Hospital, based in South Kivu and headed by Dr. Denis Mukwege.
Sexual violence against women and children is a deplorable trend in different conflicts around the world. In Africa, Darfur and the DRC stand out due to the heinous crimes committed against women. Marie-Claire Faray Kele is a Congolese women’s rights activist who believes rape is used as a tool of humiliation and subjugation, which paralyses men and their communities into submission. At the heart of DRC’s war is the nation’s minerals, which 50 years ago made it one of the richest country in Africa but are today, the source of pain for the women who make up the fabric of its society as warring factions fight for control over natural resources. That being the case, in February 2010, the UN appointed Margot Wallstrom, as special envoy tasked with intensifying efforts to end sexual violence against women and children in the conflict regions of Africa. She said, “Rape is not cultural but criminal.” However, will she be able to bring the perpetrators who go unpunished to justice?
According to UNICEF, there are over than 1,000 rape cases each month and reports by the UN claims more than 8,000 women were raped during fighting in 2009. For the militias and government troops who carry out these crimes, it seems rape has become a casual recreational act with which they make their point. They discriminate against no one based on age, gender or tribe. Such is the savagery of the attacks as demonstrated by the July 2010, gang-rape of an estimated 300 women and young girls by rebel soldiers over a four-day period in Luvungi town, DRC, the country was dubbed, “the rape capital of the world,” by a senior UN official. The North and South Kivu regions of Eastern DRC have the highest rape counts in the world with over 25 women getting raped each day, and Congo is now described as the ‘most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.’ In November 2010, it was reported by the BBC Newsnight programme that a recent study showed that 39 percent of women and 24 percent of men have been raped. However, the male victims for fear of stigmatisation and shame hardly come forward. Hence, there are numerous undocumented cases.
Bringing an end to the epidemic of sexual violence is crucial, victims also need to be rehabilitated and that is the premise on which Heal Africa works. Founded in 1994, by Dr. Kasereka and Lyn Lusi, its primary aim is to medically intervene and help people with its holistic approach to healthcare and the different programmes it runs. Judy Anderson is the executive director of Heal Africa. She grew up in the Congo but shares her time between Goma and the US. Anderson said, “Heal Africa is the strongest sign to the Congolese people that people care for them.” The Heal Africa hospital specialises in orthopaedic and fistula repair surgery, which is needed by women – due to permanent tear in the vaginal and/or rectal wall, a common injury sustained by female survivors of rape and gender-based violence. Since 2003, it has performed an estimated 2000 fistula repair surgeries on women who have been left incontinent by their attackers and assisted over 10,000 survivors of sexual violence.
Compounding the psychological trauma rape victims endure is the rejection they face from their families. Heal Africa with the help of Congolese Lawyers, created the Gender and Justice initiative among its other recovery programmes. It offers counselling to help address this practice and challenge villages to view sexual violence as a community issue, not just a women’s issue. Anderson explains it is an ongoing process. “To treat someone medically and then send them back into the same situation is not going to change anything. It might get worse. So, we started working with the idea of introducing a conversation into the community to look at what’s happening, examine people’s attitudes and where it comes from. What are the proverbs saying from the different tribes, what does the bible and the Quaran say, and what does the law say? She adds that in 2006, the Congolese government changed its constitution. Hence, “There is some protection now, which wasn’t there before and the law says that men and women are equal.”
Virginie Kavira Mumbere has worked at Heal Africa since 2000. She is currently the public relations officer and founder of AMAVESA, a group focused on relieving widows from poverty, while helping them to self dependence. She said the situation in Eastern DRC has been critical since it started, to which Anderson concurs. “It’s just as bad as it was at the height of the war. It’s very bad right now because the stakes are so high. It’s dangerous to farm and farming has been the primary income generator for the people in Eastern Congo.”
Heal Africa is not alone in its quest to help bring healing to the lives of women affected by rape. Women for Women International, is an NGO founded by Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi American, herself a victim of war. It has been at the forefront of helping women and girls in war-torn regions rebuild their lives by providing financial and emotional support, job, leadership and business skills, and educating them about their rights. Armed with the vision of getting victims to become survivors and active citizens, it currently operates in four African countries, including, DRC. Brita Schmidt is the UK’s Campaign and Policy director. She said, “The strategic role we play is one of providing tools for women to empower themselves. We do not create dependency; we focus on independence and autonomous decision making.” Asked about the action the international community must take in the wake of recent rape sprees, including that of over 30 women on New Year’s Day, in Fizi, South Kivu, Schmidt said, “The Congolese women are very clear and articulate about what is needed: more women involved in the peace negotiations and peacekeeping. At the same time as strengthening women’s voices, we also need to invest in their economic empowerment. There won’t be any peace without development and no development without peace, and an investment in greater security for women.”
Anderson, Mumbere and Schmidt agree that ending the war is the key to long lasting peace but for that to happen there must be political will and determination to address the situation behind the war. “The central government would have to put their life on the line. Unless that happens at a political level, I don’t see much changing,” says Anderson.
Confronted as to who is responsible for bringing healing to the Congolese women, the consensus is that for there to be reduction in the huge numbers of rapes, a change of mentality towards the value of women is needed. Anderson said, “The leaders need to ask, what is happening to our women and girls? What’s the future for them? There is a huge amount that can be done, if people were more concerned about the future than they are about the past.” Schmidt adds, “The future of Africa is in the women’s hands and only African women will be able to rebuild their strength and resilience, but the solidarity of women in the rest of the world is a huge supporting factor without which it won’t be possible.”
The indomitable strength of the African woman is ever present, for it is recognised that without her, Africa has no future. Mumbere said, “It’s true that African women have suffered due to multiple heinous crimes. There are too many widows and orphans because of war but on the other side, if a justice system was established and the perpetrators punished, the African woman can stand and look forward because we still hope that better things await us in coming years.”
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