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.