Congo's Sex Crimes Rage On - The Guardian Weekly
Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since fighting broke out in 1998. Victims are often left grievously mutilated, infected with HIV, pregnant and cast out by society. Anna Husarska is a senior policy adviser with the International Rescue Committee, a group that works in the eastern regions of the country to bring an end to Congo's 'war on women'. She relates what it was like to meet the survivors, some as young as 14 months old, who have been left to live out their days in fear and pain.
"This is her, the rape victim." I raise my eyes and look at a Congolese woman in her 40s who is breastfeeding. Marie-Honorine, my colleague from the International Rescue Committee, a specialist in working with survivors of sexual violence, points to the Bambi-eyed 14-month-old girl at the woman’s breast and says: "No, that is the victim."
Three months ago she was raped, the mother tells us. Her small uterus was destroyed. She has undergone several operations, but is not yet "repaired".
In North Kivu, a province in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the IRC runs a humanitarian programme, rape is no longer just a sex crime but a weapon of war. It is a way to humiliate adversaries and their communities. Government forces and three separate rebel groups are waging an ethnic civil war in this area. All four factions rape, and they force others to rape too.
I travelled with Marie-Honorine for four hours (to advance 40km, so bad are the roads) to meet a woman called Esperance. She has a baby face with the sad eyes of an adult. She was 17 years old when she witnessed the worst horror of her short life. "Grandpa was shot after he refused to rape my mum, as the militiamen were ordering him to." She goes on to say that her grandparents, parents and one brother were assassinated in front of her for refusing to obey the aggressors' demands.
She herself was raped by seven Hutus, rebels from the same ethnic group that perpetrated Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and who now find refuge in the jungles of eastern Congo. She was marginally lucky: she did not contract HIV, did not get pregnant and did not suffer damage to her internal organs. Her little brother and sister are her only family now. They are staying with two different neighbours because she can't provide for them.
Marie-Honorine introduces me to Pascaline. She lost her parents and brother when she was 18 years old, after they were forced (and refused) to do the same things as the family of Esperance. Pascaline was raped by three rebels and got pregnant. She says she kept the child because she hoped to die while giving birth. In the event she survived, but due to what was probably post-traumatic stress disorder, she let her daughter die of starvation at two weeks old. She relates this in a matter-of-fact way that makes me think she, like the little Bambi-eyed girl, is not "repaired" either.
Having spoken to over 30 victims of this barbarity, it's easy to conclude that eastern Congo is suffering from an epidemic of rape. In South Kivu, where (unlike North Kivu) no open war is raging, civilians are taking advantage of the general lawlessness and impunity. Major Munyole, a policewoman in the region’s capital Bukavu who is responsible for "protection of children, women and the fight against sexual violence", lets me look at her register of rape perpetrators. It shows their occupation: student, mobile phone salesman, teacher, evangelist...
Sex attackers often deliberately introduce objects – sticks, bottles, gun barrels, knives – into the victim’s vagina after raping her. Sometimes women are shot in the genitals. This results in a high incidence of fistulas. These are tears between vagina, bladder and rectum, which render the victim incontinent.
In developed countries a fistula is a rare ailment, while in the third world it can sometimes happen after complications in childbirth. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is frequent and often due to violence. In 2007, with only two hospitals in eastern Congo equipped for fistula-repair surgery, there were more than 630 such interventions (not all related to rape, however). At Heal Africa Hospital in Goma, there were 266 (plus 64 on outreach in other locations). At Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, 301.
Alice was 18 years old when "it" happened. She was also seven months pregnant. "They were several," she says, without telling me how many men raped her. She never raises her eyes, weaving colourful plastic bags as if her life depended on it. Her husband was killed, she lost the baby and she became a sex slave for a group of Hutu fighters. (She weaves more quickly as she tells this.) She managed to escape from the military camp, but she has a fistula. Her case is particularly complicated: she underwent six operations in both Heal Africa and Panzi but she is still unable to control her urine loss. She is waiting for yet another intervention, and is still hopeful.
Little Elise is only 10 years old, too young to undergo surgery. She uses the word fistula when speaking about her condition, as if it were a common term. But she has only a child’s vocabulary to describe what amounts to a brutal rape scene. She would like to study to be a nurse, but says that the other children who are learning to read and write do not like her – "because I stink of pee".
On top of the physical damage – often accompanied by HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases and/or unwanted pregnancy – comes the psychological and social damage. The stigma associated with rape is such that many women in Congo refuse to admit what happened to them. They fear being rejected by their husband and family, and also by their community.
Through a network of local partners, the IRC provides psychological and social help for survivors of sexual violence, offering family mediation, medical referrals and judicial assistance. Community-based groups hold literacy courses and training in sewing and other occupations. These groups are a good setting for the women to meet in. They can speak to each other and to counsellors about what they have been through, and they can work towards healing and acceptance.
To avoid stigmatising the participants of such groups we open them to otherwise vulnerable women – widows, the handicapped, etc. I went to meet one such group of vulnerable women in Muja, north of the city of Goma. After talking to the women it turned out that many of the otherwise vulnerable women had been raped too.
In almost all cases, rape occurred when the women were away from their homes fetching water or firewood, or transporting something either for their own households or to earn an income.
So when we at the IRC are thinking of ways to prevent rape, we don’t limit our work to education and social behavior (the ladies in Muja laughed at me when I suggested they force the men in their families to serve as porters); we also try to limit the exposure of women and girls.
Thus, an otherwise unrelated programme of harvesting rainwater around the home will result in less frequent excursions with the jerry can to the river. Similarly, a more efficient cooking stove may mean less need to go out to collect firewood.
We have also observed that while Congolese women do a lot of fetching and carrying, it is only the men who have motorbikes, bicycles and locally made wooden scooters called chukudus. (Chukudus are surprisingly robust; a person can transport up to eight bags of cement on one.) If men took on more carrying work, women's exposure to sexual violence while travelling long distances would be reduced. Sponsoring chukudu-making workshops would help more families have them.
Of course, if the civil war stopped it would be easier for the Congolese authorities to halt this state of lawlessness and introduce some legal measures to combat the rape epidemic. Now a peace treaty has been signed. But even if it holds the scars of this war will not go away soon. The women and girls of eastern Congo will need support for a long time to come.Learn More
Special Report: Rape in Congo - Helping Women Heal