Every time I think about the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I feel a mix of fury and fear. Here is where rape is used as a weapon of war. Here is where rape has now permeated community life. Here is where women and girls suffer unspeakable violence.
People sometimes ask me about the places I’ve been. Which is the most troubling, they want to know. Darfur? Haiti? Zimbabwe?
For me, it’s Congo–because the catalog of crimes against women is so long and so horrific.
Oxfam and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative recently come out with a study detailing some of that horror and the statistics make me ache: during the period of the study, 60 percent of the victims surveyed were gang raped by armed men and more than half of assaults took place in the woman’s home at night–often in front of her husband and children. And, as frightening, is the news that there was a 17-fold increase in rapes carried out by civilians between 2004 and 2008–the period of the study.
For Susan Bartels, the lead Harvard researcher on the report, the picture is all too clear.
“This study confirms what has only been reported anecdotally until now,” she said. “Sexual violence has become more normal in civilian life.”
Think about what that means for women: rape as more normal; predation and brutality as more normal; sorrow and ruin as more normal. All of it stems from a wartime strategy to terrorize and humiliate people, stigmatizing women and shredding the fabric of their communities.
In the words of one survivor on the frontline of this terrifying war, here’s where the new normal starts:
“My husband and I were sleeping in our house. The children were sleeping in the house next door. The soldiers arrived and brought my daughter to our house where they raped her in the presence of my husband and me. Afterwards, they demanded that my husband rape my daughter, but he refused so they shot him. Then they went into the other house where they found my three sons. They killed all three of my boys. After killing them, two soldiers raped me one after the other.”
The story is almost paralyzing. And it’s not just this story, but thousands upon thousands like it. The report notes that in 2008 the International Rescue Committee said it had helped more than 40,000 Congolese rape survivors since 2003 in South Kivu alone–the location of the Panzi Hospital where the Oxfam/Harvard Humanitarian Initiative study was carried out. The hospital is the only one of its kind in the province, and though it offers a range of services, most of its patients are rape survivors.
But one 334-bed hospital alone can’t address the waves of need that wash across the province. The study says that in rural areas, most women lack access to basic medical care following a rape and specialized treatments, like those offered at Panzi, are available in only a handful of health centers–all of which speaks to the need for the Congolese government to increase the provision of medical care for those who survive sexual violence.
More than that, the government and its international allies need to do everything in their power to reduce sexual violence linked to military actions. And it needs to happen now, especially as the UN Security Council and the Congolese government are discussing the gradual withdrawal of UN peacekeeping troops from the region—a potentially disastrous scenario for women living in areas where they have no protection at all.
What can we do here? We can lean on our congressional legislators to co-sponsor the International Violence Against Women Act. Enacted, it would direct the US government to create a five-year strategy to reduce violence in countries where girls and women face severe levels of it. And it would authorize more than a billion dollars of US assistance in that five-year period to support international programs that prevent and respond to violence.