Posts Tagged ‘Panzi Hospital’

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.

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.

Oh Congo

Friday, March 19th, 2010

So I’ve just settled in for a little break in what was a long, good, but tiring day. Started at 8:30 a.m. with a hotel change — thankfully — from a rather moldy, not super clean, no fruit at breakfast spot, to probably the nicest hotel in town. I’m glad to be here, looking out of my window on to gorgeous, well-manicured gardens with Lake Kivu just beyond. It was raining for a bit and the short but steady downpour, and the cool wind that accompanied it, was a nice backdrop for some relaxation. I’ve still got one interview to go tonight, but I am taking this time to chill out in advance.

The most exciting thing today was a US movie star celeb! I walked out of an interview at Panzi Hospital to find a large group of foreigners standing in front of what is most often used as the hospital’s cafeteria for patients. It was full of women, listening attentively to a handsome gentleman standing up front with Dr. Mukwege. Who, you ask, was this man? Well, none other than Ben Affleck. Yup. His PR lady rather curtly told me that they were doing no press and wouldn’t tell me why they were there. But there was a man filming the whole thing and Mr. Affleck had quite and entourage. All I can gather so far is he was here to see the hospital, find out what they’re doing etc. I think he’s been here before. He looks, by the way, just as he does on screen, only he’s very tall. I had no idea.

It was also lovely to see Dr. Mukwege again. He greeted me very warmly. I learned he has just returned from a trip to the US and in May is off to give a speech to the European Parliament, I think. Busy man. Rolling between movie stars, politicians and some of Congo’s neediest women all without skipping a beat.

Other than that, I’ve been trying to wrap my head a bit around this trip. I leave on Tuesday and, typically, the last few days are a mad dash. However I want to record some of the lighter things that stand out for me here. I’ll start a list:

-Among the most popular songs is surely Celine Dion’s theme song from Titanic. I hear it everywhere.
-The Pakistani MONUC troops love to take pictures of Mizungus (foreigners in Kiswahili, or perhaps less politely, white people).
-Bananas are delicious. Three cost 200 Congolese francs.
-Fabric shopping in Kadutu Market is a dizzying experience with almost too many options from which to choose!
-Best response to a adolescent or young adult male teasingly calling to me, the mizungu, is to shout back muosi! (African / Congolese in Kiswahili). I get a good, surprised laugh in return.
-Wear your seatbelt!
-Goma is HOT!
-Bukavu has a much more manageable temp.
-The gorillas are totally worth it. So is the bushwhacking.
-Remember, most babies here don’t wear diapers…. (important information when holding them)
-But they are ADORable — so beware! Holding them is very hard to resist!
-Hot water is a super luxury
-The slow boat on Lake Kivu is the way to go. Fast boat is small, way cramped and bumpy!
-The police here march in formation. A lot.
-If there is street work that closes the street, no one will tell you and no one will put up a sign. Hope you have a creative driver!
-The greetings I’ve gotten from groups of women here are some of the most welcoming of anywhere I’ve been. Trilling a chorus of high-pitched, tongue behind the front teeth, “la la las” that usually culminate in clapping, singing, dancing and lots of eager hand-shaking. I love it. It has made me blush, but it is so genuine and lovely and welcoming, it really moves me when it happens.

and another Congo piece…

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

The story that inspired my trip is now out in the Jan/Feb issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Have a look here.

Now on to planning the next visit!