Yesterday I met a graceful Bembe woman inFizi Territory. Settling herself down in the dim light of the tiny mud hut where seven of us are squeezed, she takes her baby boy from her back – where she always carries him with her, as all Congolese women do. She allows him to suckle her nipple and he quickly falls asleep, contented in his mother’s lap. As she begins to speak, even in the sombre light that filters through the net curtain which hangs in the door frame, I notice the haunted look in her eyes. She tells me that she has been raped 18 times this year.
In five separate attacks since June 1st, Eve has been raped by a total of 18 unknown armed men. During the first attack, three armed men in military uniform entered her home and bound her husband’s hands and feet together before kidnapping her and taking her up into the hills, where they proceeded to take turns at raping her. In each of the other incidents, she was attacked whilst working in her fields – a long walk from her home into the hills west ofLake Tanganyika.
Like the vast majority of families in Fizi Territory, Eve’s family survive on subsistence farming. If she does not cultivate, they do not eat. For this simple reason, despite the numerous attacks she suffered, Eve continued to make the journey to her fields, despite the terror she felt at the thought that it could happen again. And it did. ‘They say that she is traumatised, that she jumps at the slightest noise, terrified that they will attack her again’, Amisi Mas, programme coordinator for SOS Femmes en Danger, tells me her family has recounted before we meet Eve.
Five attacks? Has she been specifically targeted, we ask ourselves? The perhaps more disturbing answer is ‘No’. Eve, it appears, like so many women in South Kivu, has been attacked at random, because she is there, because her attackers have a gun, impunity, and nothing else to their name. In some cases, she was raped whilst alone. In the third attack, in August, five men raped several women – including, it emerges – a friend sitting next to Eve, a tiny, sprightly woman who nervously plucks at her short braids and giggles with hilarity when I ask, for the third time, whether they are sure they are happy for me to take a photo of Eve and her son.
Several things become clear to me during, and in the fretful hours after our encounter with Eve. The first is that many, many more women are suffering from violent sexual attacks than we have realised. Eve, despite the numerous attacks and her relative proximity to support services (she lives along the main road between Baraka and Uvira, near to SOS FED’s rape aftercare centre in Mboko and the hospital in Nundu), has approached no one for medical care or psychological support. SOS FED employees have found her through hearsay and painstaking enquiry.
The social stigmatisation that is attached to rape in Congo is so deep-seated that women choose to hide it even from those closest to them – their families and communities – fearing the repercussions should they speak out and seek help. Eve is actually one of the more fortunate women in this sense – even though her husband knows about the attacks, he has not cast her out of the family home, as many do. However some in the community are not so benevolent: “Her husband has not rejected her, but others in the community are putting pressure on him to do so – ‘She is the wife of those armed men now’, they say – ‘She should be ashamed’.” So Eve has been keeping a low profile, staying with a local priest. Not only has she never sought care, she has never officially reported the multiple attacks.
The United Nations Fund for Population Analysis (UNFPA), has since January been running a data mapping programme inSouth Kivu, in an attempt to map the location, numbers and perpetrators of attacks on women throughout the region. InFiziTerritory, local partner Arche d’Alliance and other organisations are charged with identifying and logging cases of rape using UNFPA-designed referral forms. Between January and April, such organisations logged only 118 cases throughout Fizi – a territory of over 40,000km², and host to at least five armed rebel groups. Women like Eve – who no doubt run into their hundreds, perhaps thousands – have not been identified, treated or protected from such attacks. Off the radar and hidden from view they suffer alone, receiving support from neither their families, communities, national government, nor the international community.
It becomes obvious, speaking to Eve and those around her, that the vast majority of women refuse to seek the help of the paltry few organisations like SOS FED who can provide the support they need. Following a spate of attacks in August, SOS FED have discovered through village to village visits a possible 70 rape victims who have not come forward for help, only in this past month. Actors at all levels have consistently underestimated and under-acknowledged the extent to which fear of stigmatisation deters women from seeking help and reporting attacks. Eve’s story illustrates the desperate need to address the issue of sexual violence at its deepest roots – the position of women in Congolese society.
It further emphasises the incapacity, or worse, unwillingness, of the Congolese state to address the issue of armed groups inSouth Kivu. The men who attacked them, insist Eve and her friend, were part of Mupekenya, a Mai-Mai group based in the hills west of Mboko. Mupekenya, indignant at what they perceive as the ‘Rwandisation’ of the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) following the recent incorporation of several rebel groups, including the tutsi-dominated CNDP, refuse to give up their arms or join the FARDC themselves. Their reluctance is also perhaps due to an acknowledgement that the insufficient rations, equipment and salaries make joining the FARDC a less attractive option than surviving off banditry and pillaging local populations.
This tactic, initiated by the brutal Belgian colonial ‘Force Publique’ in the 1880’s, and infamously endorsed by Mobutu in post-colonial times, is most recently perpetuated by Mupekenya and the numerous other rebel groups that plague South Kivu and the rest of the DRC. For them, laying down arms is unappealing in the current context of chronic unemployment and underdevelopment inSouth Kivu, where 84.7% of the population live under the poverty line.
Discussing the issue of banditry on the journey back to Uvira, the words of a Congolese friend came to mind. We were discussing an abandoned sugar refinery in Kiliba, 17km north of Uvira, which the government has been talking of re-opening for several years, when he brought up the issue of rebel groups. ‘If they re-opened the factory and they knew there were jobs, that day they would come down from the hills and give up their arms. Do you think they enjoy living up there, with no home, no family, no possessions apart from their gun? They too suffer.’
This is not to say, of course, that underdevelopment, unemployment and dissatisfaction with government policy excuses individuals who choose to commit violent sexual attacks against innocent women like Eve. However, understanding the historical, political and economic context which has created and sustains rebel groups and their abuses is fundamental to disbanding them and combating sexual violence in theCongo. What we do not need is more hysterical, analysis-free reporting of African savages raping powerless female victims. What we do not need is more empty rhetoric about addressing the issue of sexual violence in the DRC. What is needed is a genuine and sustained effort on the parts of actors at all levels to stamp out sexual and gender-based violence in theCongo. This includes the Congolese national government, the international community, Congolese civil society organisations and communities at the local level.
In the short term, work by organisations such as SOS FED and Arche d’Alliance to de-stigmatize rape must be vastly expanded. Their community education initiatives introduce women’s rights to community leaders and work to transform harmful mindsets which portray rape as the victim’s fault. Such initiatives have been shown to produce real results at the local level. The international community and Congolese civil society should invest in and support such initiatives to encourage community acceptance of victims, and the recourse to support services and reporting of attacks. Similarly, the international community and particularly the Congolese government must fulfil their responsibility to provide access to free medical care for victims of sexual violence, something which is needlessly and sorely lacking in many parts ofSouth Kivu. Local civil society organisations and the international community should support prevention initiatives such as the communal cultivation and access to nearby water sources practised by SOS FED, which should be used as a model elsewhere.
In the medium term, the UNFPA, with the support of the Congolese government, the international community, and local partners, must improve the reliability and coverage of the commendable sexual violence data-mapping project which they have begun. Similarly, MONUSCO – the UN stabilisation mission in theCongo– and NGO partners should improve their programmes to focus on rapid alert and response networks to attacks on women in accessible areas.
Perhaps most importantly, in the medium to long term there are several initiatives that the Congolese government, with support from the international community, must take to combat sexual violence. Firstly, they must work to improve security through reform and professionalization of the FARDC – who are perhaps equally as guilty of abuses as armed rebel groups – through offering improved salaries, rations, equipment and training, including civilian protection and international humanitarian law training. Additionally, they must work to eradicate armed groups and the instability and abuses they perpetuate. Such work necessarily includes a multi-pronged approach, including security measures such as widening the scope of FARDC civilian protection and re-gaining territory currently under rebel control. Equally important is good governance, including comprehensive political reform – genuinely committing to improving basic government services and accountability. Finally, a key component of stabilisation includes providing development and investment initiatives to stimulate the local economy and present tangible alternatives to those who may otherwise resort to joining armed groups.
These are real and genuinely achievable measures which would have a tangible impact on the lives of Congolese women. There is no longer an excuse to plead ignorance, to perpetuate inaction. We have ignored and failed the women ofCongofor far too long. Eve, and the countless others like her, are a testament to the immeasurable resilience and strength of Congolese women. They deserve better.
Posted By Charlie Walker
Posted Sep 19th, 2011