Posts Tagged ‘Congo’

Columbia University SIFA takes on gender violence in the DRC

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Last Monday night I had the opportunity to attend a talk at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs on gender-based violence in the Congo. The assembled panel was an excellent group: Dr. Les Roberts, an Associate Clinical Professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health; Dr. Susan Bartels, associate faculty at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; Judy Ericson Anderson, Executive Director of Heal Africa USA; and Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World.

Though the panelists all shared their observations that the incidences of rape and sexual violence does, in general, seem to be decreasing in Congo, it remains a huge problem. And, they emphasized, it’s a problem not just for the women and girls (and men and boys) who are raped, but it’s a problem for the entire country and its prospects for a future that includes long-term peace, stability and development.

Dr. Roberts began the conversation by explaining some of the roots of violence in Congo – the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fleeing Hutu refugees some of whom carried out the genocide, Rwanda’s pursuit of those individuals into Congolese territory, the shifting alliances between rebel groups and the many sovereign nations involved in Congo’s violence throughout the years, and the constant struggle for control of Congo’s vast mineral resources – those that largely fuel the fighting.

I was especially intrigued by some of the findings Dr. Bartels shared of her study of 4,300 women patients who checked into Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu, between 2004-2008. All the patients she considered in her study had been victims of sexual violence.

On average, she found that women waited just over 10 months after they were attacked to present at the hospital. A few came much sooner and many came much later, even two or three years, after their rapes. The finding is significant, she explained, because what solutions medicine can offer to rape victims – like post-coital contraception and STD preventatives – are highly time dependent. The longer women wait to get help, the less medicine can do. Thus, it makes a big difference if women are aware of the help available to them.

Other findings she discussed:
-Most women were raped in their homes, not on roads, at their farms, etc. This is important information especially for those whose job is civilian protection, i.e. the UN, and should help them determine what tactics to pursue.
-The majority of attacks included two or more perpetrators. They were gang rapes.
-The risk of pregnancy for women was especially high among those who had been kidnapped and held as sexual slaves. (For some stories about women who endured and survived this horrific experience, see my Christian Science Monitor article: Mothers in Congo get help in raising children of rape)
-More than half of all perpetrators of the rapes were soldiers, about 52 percent, though that number could be, and probably is, much higher.
-All types of rape decreased between 2004-1008.
-However, during the same time period, the number of civilian-perpetrated rapes increased 17-fold. This, Dr. Bartels explained, suggests a “normalization” of rape in Congolese society – a truly worrisome development, to be sure.

Judy Anderson focused on the work Heal Africa has been doing to train counselors throughout North Kivu province to work with women who have been raped. One of their main endeavors has been to inform victims about their rights and the services available to them at places like Heal Africa, a hospital based in Goma that provides fistula repair and other gynecological care (as well as other medical interventions). If women know what help is out there they can access it earlier, a significant development given the findings Dr. Bartels discussed earlier.

More than 3,500 women have been trained as counselors, said Anderson, a woman I have spoken to on several occasions for my pieces about Congo. And thus far, more than 30,000 women have gone through Heal Africa’s counselor’s network.

Donovan wrapped up the comments from panelists by first explaining why an Aids organization spends so much time advocating for an end to sexual violence: “We are of the absolute conviction,” she said, that if there was no more gender-based violence and discrimination, “then Aids would be a virus, not a pandemic.” I found this connection intriguing and was grateful for her insights because it’s not something that I think is obvious to many. I admit that it wasn’t to me.

She then shared several more thoughts about the global problem of sexual violence and how it plays out in Congo specifically. Some of her comments included the following:

-“Nothing,” she said, “is working on a national, global or systemic level to end sexual violence.” She suggested that because all responses to sexual violence are “after-the-fact,” or “reparative,” the job of prevention is not getting done – at least not effectively enough.
-Prevention, she added, is never going to happen (really and thoroughly) if men are in all the decision-making (read: power) positions.
-To that end she called for a moratorium on all further UN declarations, treaties, and resolutions on ending sexual violence until those that are currently in place – and that already codify women’s rights to be included at the highest decision-making levels and peace negotiations, that demand gender equality and the protection of women’s rights – are actually enacted.
-Gender training should be a prerequisite for UN peacekeepers. This is a point I’ve heard from other human rights advocates and I think underscores the need for much more pre-deployment training for troops in general.
-It is also important to have many more women peacekeepers, Donovan said, and the UN should therefore give incentives (monetary) for countries to find and train women to take on these roles. If it is twice as valuable to countries to recruit and train women peacekeepers than men, they will do it, she said.
-A serious economic analysis is required to better understand what it will actually cost to solve the problem of sexual violence.

Several more important points came up during the Q & A session that followed. Dr. Roberts emphasized the need to focus on preventing the exploitation of Congo’s minerals. Anderson and Bartels addressed the importance of including men in the fight against sexual violence.

Most significant to me, however, was one of Donovan’s remarks, what she cautioned might be “unforgivably cynical.” She said that the problem of sexual violence in Congo continues because Black, African women from strategically unimportant countries don’t matter to most.

If she’s right, then I’ll end with a thought and a plea. To me, these women, who are among the most invisible people on the planet, do matter. Their lives and struggles matter and their survival matters. Their courage, as I’ve seen it, is exceptional and their strength is inspiring. It’s why I keep going back to Congo because they have so many stories to tell.

And so my plea is to please make them matter to you too. Visit the sites of the organizations listed here and see what help you can contribute. Or simply read about the Congo here or in other blogs and newspaper and magazines. Then send the stories onto your friends and family. One of biggest challenges is getting more people to be aware of the Congo and the daily challenges the Congolese experience. Until we care, a lot of us, these problems will persist and victims of rape will continue to suffer.

“Nathalie”

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

21.Oct.2010

When I was last in Congo, in March, I visited the island of Idjwi. I wrote about meeting a little girl on the side of the road who was all by herself, dirty, had obviously been crying and was terribly malnourished. After urging the village chief and elders to find an adult to be with her, a woman came who turned out to be her mother. Turns out that 9 percent of the children on Idjwi, and there are thousands of them, suffer from malnutrition. This little one was not alone.

I followed up with Roger and Bahati and sent money to them so that the mother could bring the child to the hospital. I wasn’t sure if she would survive. I’ve never before seen a child so small and limp from lack of food. But the mother did take her daughter to the hospital where the little girl received care. I subsequently learned through Roger and Bahati that she was getting better.

Today I got to see for myself.

Roger and Bahati and I ventured again to Idjwi and met with the girl’s mother. Turns out, that although I thought her name was Nathalie, and that she was 3, her name is Anuarite and she is just 2.5 years old. Her older sister is Nathalie, and is 4. Her younger sister is Dione, 1.5 years. They all, and their mother, Nankomere, looked much better – cleaner and better fed. Nevertheless, I left the mom with a bit more money for a hospital follow-up because I remain concerned that the girls are not as healthy as they could be.

But it was a huge relief to see them, and especially, Anuarite, doing so well. I completely didn’t recognize her when we arrived at the hut. She had a head full of little curls, round cheeks and some actual muscle – not much – but some on her legs and arms. I couldn’t for all my efforts get her to crack a smile and she seems tired still. It’s probably a legacy of the malnutrition. Nathalie was much more affectionate with me, clinging to my legs and staying quite near me the entire length of my visit.

Roger and I had gone shopping and picked up some dresses and shoes for the three girls, which we gave as well. The stuff is way too big for them now – we had all the ages wrong of the sisters – but they’ll grow into it and have things for the future, which is key.

Their mother told me she had used some of the money left over from the hospital stay to buy items to sell as a petty trade. With that, and the farming she continues to do, she has herself been able to feed her children better – she showed me the dried fish, cassava flour and beans in her tiny mud hut. She has even bought her three girls some new clothes. When I met Anuarite, she was barefoot and wearing only a tattered, oversized, and soiled t-shirt. She didn’t even have on underwear. This time she was in a smart skirt and top set that matched her sister Nathalie’s, her face was clean and and she had on a pair of underwear fashion from some old cloth.

But the main point is that she was much improved physically and I was really thrilled.

I intend to keep up with the family and support them in the little ways that I can. And I will keep working on getting that smile from Anuarite. I know it’s coming.

Sara and Baraka

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

19.Oct.2010

Nothing has even come close to lifting my spirits as the sight of 15-year-old Sara and her 1-year-old daughter Baraka did today in Bukavu. I wrote about them last March when I did the piece on children born of rape for the Christian Science Monitor. Sara was abducted and raped and had a child when she was 14. She has no family. If I remember correctly, her parents were killed. I am not sure what happened to her one sibling.

She lives now in a group transition home for women who had been patients at Panzi Hospital. She remains there, but is set to move soon, I believe, to another of the hospital’s homes.

My interview with Sara many months ago, really moved me, as most of those I conducted with young rape victims did. But her face and her child stayed with me better than the others. First because of her deep love and affection for her daughter, even after what she had been through, and second because her daughter is such a happy, lively child. None of that has changed. Baraka continues to giggle and gurgle and smile constantly. She was afraid of me, unfortunately, perhaps because I look so odd to her. But she is a gaggle of happy energy for others. And Sara is still a profoundly kind and big-hearted young girl. She laughed at her daughter’s frightened reaction through her own slightly bewildered eyes.

My heart swelled when I saw her. The minute she saw me, and the instant of recognition passed between us, her smile opened and she ran to me, Baraka on her back, and we hugged. She was so excited and surprised to see me. It was instantaneous joy and totally sincere and unscripted and real and again, Sara managed to move me, nearly to tears. I am sure after our interview she never did expect to see me again. And I was so thrilled to see her. I never forgot her and there seemed something very important to both of us in knowing that.

It’s often so difficult as a journalist here for me to hear about such horror and then simply walk away. I know all I can promise is a story and I believe deeply in the power and potential of journalism to change lives; to change the world. But that does not often translate for a girl whose lost her whole family, her childhood and any real semblance of security. So to be able to come back, and to see how much my doing so meant to her, and to realize how much it meant to me as well, was a profoundly important experience. Obviously I wasn’t the only one who felt some tie, some connection. Sara felt it to.

Sara is now in school, fourth form, something she wanted desperately. I’m ecstatic. She is healthy, Baraka is healthy; Sara has friends in school, she is learning French and Swahili, and math and she seems happy. We were able to communicate in French a bit, she knows some basic phrases, and after much prodding, she shared with me her new English too: “Good morning! How are you?” She was so shy and sweet and could barely look at me and keep from giggling as she said it. But I know she was happy to share. She also showed me her school notebooks, paging through slowly, so I could see as her writing in French had improved since September and how she has gone from measurement conversions to simple geometry in math.

Before parting I left her with some money for school uniforms, notebooks and pens, and little extra to get her hair braided. It costs $1 and she likes to do it twice a month. I am more than happy to support such vanity. She’s a beautiful girl, thoroughly, in her core. I can’t wait to see her again. In fact, I’m sad to leave her.

Slow day in the Congo…

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

13.Oct.2010

Didn’t get too much done today, but I am now sitting at the sublime waterside bar of Le Chalet, a bar and restaurant in Goma. I could dive in the cool waters of Lake Kivu if the desire overtook me, though I think I’d look a bit funny sitting here all wet during the interview that is about to take place. To my right the sun breaks through the clouds in glorious rays, casting a glow over the mountains in the distance. It belies what I know is the crippling violence ongoing far below in so many places.

The interview went well, provided just the outside perspective of MONUSCO I was hoping for. And then Roger and Jet (Dobs’s nearly identical younger brother) and I had a yummy meal at Doga, becoming a favorite.

Roger gave me a lesson over dinner about the ethnic make up of Congo’s people. It’s not simple, as one can imagine. So I had him literally map it out for me. And I could see he was a highly successful teacher in his day. The people who settled here came from two migrations – the first from the Sahara, the Bantu people; the second from the Nile, the Niletiques in French, not sure the English translation. They in turn, through further migration east and west of Lake Kivu and the environs, as well as coupling, became the Bushi people (I think) and the Rwandan Tutsi and Tanzanian and Kenyan Masai. From there it gets more and more complicated. Suffice it to say, the populations of the Great Lakes region (and most of the world) all basically started out as the same people and / or share significant family lineages. Makes the many conflicts engulfing this region (and everywhere, globally) feel all the more useless, since we are all the same. Naïve? Perhaps. But true.

Farm patrol in Rugari

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

12.Oct.2010

If anyone were to tell you that Congo is a beautiful country, don’t doubt it. I saw some truly spectacular countryside today.

Roger and I accompanied the Indian peacekeeping contingent from the Rugari COB (TK) (part of MONUSCO, the UN mission in Congo) on their regular farm patrol where they walk through the vast cultivated countryside whose farmers they are sent to protect.

Hill upon rolling, bright green hill, plotted in neat round rows for beans, sorghum, cassava, potatoes and other vegetables. The terrain was rarely flat, often offering long vistas over the valley below and towards the mountains opposite. The farmers were genial, greeting us graciously as we passed with big smiles, energetic waves and “Jambo! Habari!” (Hello! How are you!) Children hollered happily as we passed, they shy ones warming up after the initial shock of seeing my white skin – Mizungu! Plus, Roger is so sweet with them that few can resist cracking a smile once he goes in for a robust high five handshake.

The land was lush and the footpaths slick and muddy. They cost me my footing once on a downhill slope. Note to self: find walking stick before next rural Congo trek. It makes one feel a little more sheepishly clumsy because the locals run up and down these paths in sure bare feet or meager plastic sandals. Here I was with my water-proof, extra comfy, good soled Tevas and I couldn’t hold it together. Typical.

Besides the fact that we saw a really special area, the reporting was fruitful. More on that in the story…