Columnist calls attention to sexual violence in Congo

Published in The Oklahoma Daily on October 5, 2009.

The woman on the screen does not cry. Her eyes are empty, not quite looking into the camera, as she tells her story. She was raped. She is not the only one.

The woman of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are being targeted by a “systematic military strategy” of mass sexual violence. They are raped by 10 or 12 soldiers at a time. In front of their families, husbands and children. Sometimes with rifles and sticks.

Old, young, pregnant or ill, any woman is in danger. Some are teens, too young to have been married yet. Some are children, even infants.

Some will die from their injuries. Many will develop fistula, a hole in the lining of the vaginal wall that causes incontinence and pain. The lucky ones will end up at Panzi hospital, the only hospital in the country which can perform the surgery to repair fistula.

Many will suffer from sexually transmitted diseases. Health care officials worry that the next few years will bring an explosion of HIV to the Congo. Many are pregnant with the child of their rapist. All of them will have to live with the memories of their brutal rape for the rest of their lives.

Last March, as part of a week-long rape and violence awareness campaign, a documentary covering the violence against women in the Congo was shown to students who attended “A Night for the Women of the Congo.”

Since then, attention for this issue has been growing rapidly in the U.S. and abroad, culminating in a unanimously approved United Nations resolution condemning sexual violence in war zones.

This resolution creates a special envoy to coordinate the fight against the use of rape as a weapon and focuses efforts on advising governments on the best way to prosecute offenders.

While these measures certainly begin the journey toward progress, the international community has much farther to go to truly combat this problem.

When the conflict known as “Africa’s First World War” officially ended in the Congo, the violence did not stop. Rebel groups backed by foreign countries are still fighting in the country’s eastern half. The chaos of the continuing conflict has allowed those foreign countries to pilfer the abundant natural resources of the area.

Rape is used as an official strategy of both the rebel groups and the official Congolese government, because of its ability to tear apart communities and dehumanize individuals.

The UN has estimated that over 200,000 woman have been raped in the area in the last decade.

But it is impossible to accurately estimate the number of women raped during this conflict because most of these crimes go unreported. Men convicted of rape can easily pay their way out of jail and potentially come back to further harm the woman who accused them.

This lack of accountability is the primary challenge facing efforts to stop this phenomenon. Congolese culture not only supports an apathetic attitude toward rape, but also places the blame on the victimized woman. It is considered infidelity, as if she wanted it to happen.

Many rape victims are abandoned by their husbands and left with few means of survival. To save their own and their children’s lives, women hide the fact that they were raped and cannot receive the medical and psychological help they need.

Organizations such as Panzi hospital are attempting to bring help to these women, but it is an uphill struggle. They are underfunded and threatened, attempting to change the gender roles on which Congolese culture is based.

There must be accountability for these crimes, real punishment. There must be sympathy for the victims. There must be attention from the Congolese government. These things will not happen if the global community does not continue to act, decisively and continuously.

Political pressure on the government of the Congo is the only way to stop this femicide, and while the UN resolution lays the groundwork for this pressure, it will be nothing but an empty gesture if not followed by action.

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