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The rape of Congo’s greatest resource

March 17, 2011

Photo from Flickr by United Nations Photo

Since last week was the 100th International Women’s Day (March 8th), and since women are a topic I’ve been wanting to address on the blog for a while now, it seems like a good time for a blog post on the state of women in the Congo… and it’s not going to be pretty, so brace yourselves for a heavy topic.

Much of the news and media attention coming out of the Congo in the past few years revolves around violence… and not just any violence.  Sexual violence.  Rape.

Photojournalists and film-makers document it, public health folks throw out statistics about it, and references to rape in the DRC get tossed into pretty much any speech on international women’s health these days.  DRC has become the poster-child of just how screwed up a place can be towards that women that live in it.

And for good reason…

It sucks to be a woman here.

In the eastern part of the country, decades long conflict between a jumble of national military, international military, and rebel militias has lead to the systematic rape of hundreds of thousands of women as a tactic of war. A recent article in The Economist explains:

War’s overlooked victims: Rape is horrifyingly widespread in conflicts all around the world

Jan 13th 2011 | GOMA

(These are just main points of the original article, read the whole thing here)

Rape in war is as old as war itself. After the sack of Rome 16 centuries ago Saint Augustine called rape in wartime an “ancient and customary evil”. For soldiers, it has long been considered one of the spoils of war….

Congo’s horrors are mind-boggling. A recent study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Oxfam examined rape survivors at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a town in South Kivu province. Their ages ranged from three to 80. Some were single, some married, some widows. They came from all ethnicities. They were raped in homes, fields and forests. They were raped in front of husbands and children. Almost 60% were gang-raped. Sons were forced to rape mothers, and killed if they refused.

The anarchy and impunity of war goes some way to explaining the violence. The conditions of war are often conducive to rape. Young, ill-trained men, fighting far from home, are freed from social and religious constraints. The costs of rape are lower, the potential rewards higher. And for ill-fed, underpaid combatants, rape can be a kind of payment.

Rape is a means of subduing foes and civilians without having to engage in the risky business of battle. Faced with rape, civilians flee, leaving their land and property to their attackers. In August rebel militias raped around 240 people over four days in the Walikale district of eastern Congo. The motives for the attack are unclear. The violence may have been to intimidate the population into providing the militia with gold and tin from nearby mines. Or maybe one bit of the army was colluding with the rebels to avoid being replaced by another bit and losing control of the area and its resources. In Walikale, at least, rape seems to have been a deliberate tactic, not a random one.

At worst, rape is a tool of ethnic cleansing and genocide, as in Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda.

For the victims and their families… the shame and degradation of rape rip apart social bonds. In societies where a family’s honour rests on the sexual purity of its women, the blame for the loss of that honour often falls not upon the rapist, but the raped.

The government would rather Congo were not known as the world’s rape capital, but it shows little interest in real change.

Even when wars end, rape continues. Humanitarian agencies in Congo report high levels of rape in areas that are quite peaceful now. Again, it is hard to assess numbers. Figures for rape before the war do not exist. A greater willingness to report rape may account for the apparent increase. But years of fighting have resulted in a culture of rape and violence… Efforts to reintegrate ex-combatants into society have been short and unsuccessful, with little follow-up to assess results. Add to that the dismal judicial system, and the outlook is grim.

And if that doesn’t make your stomach queasy, check out some clips from a couple of documentaries with confessions of rapists and explanations of why they did/do what they did/do.  One is from Weapon of War (thanks Lianne for sending me the link!) and the other is from The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo.

Seriously?!?  I get nauseous watching this.

Although it certainly receives the most international attention, conflict-related rape in the eastern DRC is only one part of a much larger problem.  Throughout the country, for women and girls, violence in some form or another is an every day threat.  It’s estimated that 64% of women in the country have been either physically or sexually abused, not by a military fighter in the bush, but by their husband or boyfriend.

Sixty-four percent.

That’s huge.

And this goes largely ignored by both national and international attention.  And we haven’t even started talking about all the other crap: 14-year-olds being married off to men more than 10 years older than them, widows getting kicked out of their home penniless by their in-laws because Congolese law does not recognize the wife’s right to inherit property, etc. etc. etc.

So, is the outlook for women in the DR Congo really that grim?

Well, yes, actually- it kind of is right now…

HOWEVER, we are starting to see glints of a silver lining every now and then.

Just within the past few months, a group of soldiers from the government military were convicted of mass rape and sent to jail, among them a high ranking officer.  This was pretty much a first for the country where cases of rape almost always go unpunished.

Also, thanks to growing and growing international attention and support, new programs are popping up and old programs expanding their services for victims of sexual violence in some parts of the country.  Earlier this year, celebrities, diplomats and Congolese ladies celebrated the opening of the City of Joy, a place for survivors of violence to heal, learn and become advocates in their communities.

The City of Joy was built in response to the needs voiced by Congolese women themselves, and was a project of V Day, the organization that brings us the Vagina Monologues.

Eve Ensler, founder of V Day and writer of the Vagina Monologues, wrote a monologue for the women of the DRC and has been putting the sexual violence here in the spotlight the past few years (including when I was in the play in New Orleans!).  If you feel like a good cry, check out her heart-wrenching monologue for Congolese women: Teenage Girls Guide to Surviving Sex Slavery

Ok, so now let’s bring this all back to International Women’s Day to sum it all up.

Last week, Michelle Bachelet of UN Women (and former president of Chile) pressed upon the importance of gender equality in communities and society.  “Evidence shows that where women have access to good education, good jobs, land and other assets, national growth and stability are enhanced, and we see lower maternal mortality, improved child nutrition, greater food security and less risk of HIV and AIDS,” she says.

Hillary Clinton echoes with similar themes.  Providing women with “equal access to education and health care and the freedom to start businesses, the economic, political and social benefits ripple out far beyond their own home,” she states.

International Women’s Day is “an occasion for honoring the achievements of women,” but it is also “an occasion for recognizing how much more needs to be done to support women and girls worldwide… If we decide- as societies, governments and businesses- to invest in women and girls, we will strengthen our efforts to fight poverty, drive development and spread stability.  When women thrive, families, communities and countries thrive- and the world becomes more peaceful and prosperous.”

So, for all you violence perpetrators or would-be perpetrators out there: knock it off.  Seriously.  In the Congo, you’re one of the forces holding back what could be an awesome, happy, healthy and wealthy country.

And for those who feel inspired to lend some support to the women of the Congo, check out this list of organizations that I know are doing some truly wonderful work here.

Click on the links below to be directed to each NGO’s website on DRC projects

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gretchen permalink
    March 25, 2011 6:10 am

    Wow, Katie, this is unbelievable, and at the same time I am filled with the most poisonous hatred you can think of when I realize that sadly, it is believable. It’s happening. I feel like I am reading horror stories from the middle ages, yet its 2011 and this is happening everyday to girls and women who deserve, as any human, to have a chance to live a life where they are in control of their bodies and their decisions. To me, rape is worse than murder…something so deeply important inside of someone is taken, ripped apart, burned, and thrown away…they are left to live the rest of the one life they are given missing that piece, trying to recover. Sexuality is such a huge part of our being and it is absolutely tragic that it ever since…well, ever, it has been used interchangeably with and as a means of violence.

    I get the same reaction you do when I allow myself to think about the reality of the horrific situation….absolutely sick to my inner core…helpless…and I cannot fathom the strength of these women and girls who are or have actually been put through this. That is their reality, and they are amazing. They are the true soldiers.

    • Katie R permalink*
      March 25, 2011 8:44 am

      Hey Gretchen, thanks so much for your comment… I had been meaning to de a post on this for a while and your email the other day motivated me! I hope this answers some of the questions that you had asked. It’s always refreshing to express a bit of outrage, right?

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