Posts Tagged ‘women’

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.

World Press Freedom Day

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. But on this day, this year, I am not thinking about the dangers for the many journalists whose bylines I’ve come to associate with places like Mogadishu or Manila, Kabul, Moscow or Islamabad. It’s not because I don’t have immense respect for them and for the risks they take to bring their readers essential reports from some of the most dangerous, repressive corners of the world. I do.

But this year my thoughts are with those who rarely, if ever, get a byline. Yet these are the individuals without whom most foreign journalists – myself included – would never get a single story written.

These nameless men and women are the fixers, the translators, the drivers, the local reporters and aspiring journalists who make the work of their foreign peers possible. They are brave and determined individuals who assume nearly all the risk for telling stories those in power would often rather stifle and who are far too rarely recognized for their efforts.

Of all the journalists who have died around the world because of their work, 90 percent are locals, according to CPJ. It is common that their murderers are never found, prosecuted or convicted.

I recently returned from a three-week reporting trip to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was my second time there, covering stories primarily about women’s and children’s rights and sexual and gender-based violence. I was mostly in Bukavu and Goma, the regional capitals of South and North Kivu respectively, where violence and insecurity has been ongoing since the late 1990s.

Impunity and disregard for the rule of law is rife in Congo, a vast nation with a shoddy record of protecting the members of its media, especially in the east. Six journalists have been murdered since 2005, according to Reporters Without Borders, and three in Bukavu – one each in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Fixers are not immune. According to a 2004 CPJ report, Acquitté Kisembe, a fixer for Agence France-Presse, disappeared while on assignment in 2003. He was presumed dead.

Though Congo is seeing increased stability in some parts of the country, risks for journalists remain. On my first trip, last October, I reported on the death threats one month earlier made to three female journalists based in Bukavu.

On both trips I worked closely with a local interpreter whose assistance has come to be not just helpful, but a professional and personal necessity.

He, like so many of his colleagues around the world, guides me through every step of what I do in Congo. He’s found for me secure accommodations and reliable drivers to ferry me safely along eastern Congo’s gutted, perilous roads. He’s made contact with countless sources before I’m even in country to insure that I’ll have the story I’ve promised my editors. He’s spent hours helping me schedule interviews and translating them as we go. He never lets me walk into a police station or military compound alone. He tells me where I can go safely and where I can’t. I don’t question his judgment.

As we bump our way through Bukavu’s muddy streets, he shares his insider’s take on Congolese culture, politics and history. His lessons often become the silent background informing so much of what I write. And, no less important, he steers me to the best food and Internet connections in town. I’ve told him many times – and I can only hope he knows how sincere I am when I say this – I would be totally lost without him.

But his name goes nowhere on my stories. He’s a silent, but invaluable, partner. For me, this World Press Freedom Day is a reminder of my indebtedness to him and his colleagues everywhere.

At CPJ’s Impunity Summit, held last month at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Owais Aslam Ali, secretary-general of the Pakistan Press Foundation, underscored this point that unnamed locals are key to our work. Yet he felt that the international media community is not doing enough to protect and support those journalists and fixers upon whom we rely so heavily.

“This war is being covered by the foreign media on the cheap,” he said of the ongoing conflicts in Pakistan. The brunt of the dangers are being borne by the local media, he said, adding that they are pushing the limits of what they cover for, and because of, the foreign press.

Yet, Ali felt that there was scant support by the international media community for the journalists who take risks to bring us these stories, who become internally displaced as they flee their homes in the face of threats because of their work. He called the foreign media “callous” in this regard. The only journalist’s murder in the last decade to have been solved and prosecuted to a conviction in Pakistan was that of Daniel Pearl, an American, in 2002. But to Ali, the case was evidence that with international pressure, attention and support, there can be justice for all journalists, even when they are local.

So, today, I’ll be thinking about the names behind the names we see in print. I’ll be thanking them for their courage and tenacity and wisdom. I am grateful for the continuing work CPJ does to protect the fixers (here are some recent examples: http://cpj.org/tags/fixer). I hope that others at the Summit heard what I did from Ali – that when we speak up for journalists, let’s not speak only for those whose names appear in print.

(this post was written for the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalist)

On the air

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

“The Conversation” on KUOW (NPR) Seattle aired our segment about the Congo on Friday and I think it went pretty well. I thoroughly enjoyed the back-and-forth with Lisa and the host, Ross Reynolds, and I hope that for those listening it was informative and perhaps motivational. I mean, that if we were really successful, maybe we will be able to get more and more people interested in learning about, writing about, visiting and helping Congo, especially in finding a way towards a lasting peace in the east.

Here is the link to listen online or go to www.kuow.org/conversation.

Nick Kristof, Zainab Salbi, Lisa Shannon — what a week!

Friday, April 16th, 2010

So I started my week by going to hear Nicholas Kristof, columnist of the New York Times, speak at the Columbia Journalism School. He was the last in a series of speakers that have come throughout the semester to talk about covering conflicts. As I expected, he was thoughtful, articulate and, at times, quite funny. He talked a lot about his new book, “Half the Sky,” which I’ve recently read, and is well worth picking up if you haven’t already.

Among the unnerving facts he spoke about:
-Worldwide, there are more males than females because so many women have been killed because they are female. From the book, here is the stat: “more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”
-There is a well-documented connection between societies where women are most marginalized and those mired in conflict

I also gained what may at some point be a really useful tip while out reporting — never accept a ride from a photographer or cameraman in a war zone, “they are crazy,” Kristof said. If you want to drive towards the shooting and violence, not away from it, then get in that car. Otherwise, steer clear. Note to self…

After he finished speaking I was able to sneak in among the mob of people trying to talk to him, pass him my card, and tell him “jambo” from Roger and I. Roger, the amazing translator I work with in Congo, has also worked with the New York Times heavy. Mr. Kristof smiled in recognition and seemed surprised and happy at the coincidence.

Then last night, I went to the Strand to hear Lisa Shannon and Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, talk about Congo and Lisa’s new book “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey of Hope into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman.” Lisa is the women I mentioned in my previous post whom I met in Congo and who taped the KUOW radio show with me on Monday. The conversation between Lisa and Zainab was, again, thoughtful and compelling. Both women are such an inspiration in taking their passions and dreams and making them reality, all for the sake of improving women’s lives. Yet, what also came out clearly during their hour at The Strand was how much their own lives have improved and taken shape as a result of their work. It’s an important reminder not to waste too much time on jobs etc, that are not fulfilling and motivating.

Lisa talked a lot about the women in her book — her Congolese sisters that she has sponsored through Women for Women. One, Generose, has a particularly moving story. She suffered the loss of several family members (a child and her husband, I think) at the hands of a militia (the FDLR, I think, but don’t recall for sure) who also cut off one of her legs. During Lisa’s last trip to Congo, when we met, she held the first ever Run For Congo Women in Congo. It was on Feb. 28, as I was on my way from Kigali, so I missed the event. Nevertheless, she described it as joyous and mentioned that even Generose, on crutches, walked / ran for about 1/3 of a mile, as much as she could. Later she told Lisa, “if I run, then everyone will know they can do something.” If that’s not a poignant example of how strong and courageous Congolese women are, despite suffering in more atrocious ways than I have ever seen, I don’t know what is.

When Zainab later asked Lisa to comment on the idea that war brings out both the worst and best of humanity, she expanded on what Generose’s comments alluded to — the determination of Congolese women not to be bowed by the violence around them. Even, Lisa said, if militias terrorize, murder, rape, and torture them; loot their villages and burn their homes, Congolese women “can’t be stopped.” The militias do not and cannot win. “There is something in Congolese women that cannot be touched,” Lisa said.

I had the chance after the talk to go out with Lisa and it was such a treat to talk with her again and commiserate about Congo — what is so difficult there, inspiring there, what makes us want to continue going back. I hope that this last trip won’t be the only time we overlap along the shores of Lake Kivu.

A radio show!

Monday, April 12th, 2010

So I just got off the phone from a taping for “the Conversation” with Ross Reynolds on KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station. I was on with Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women and author of her new book “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey of Hope into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman.” Her Web site is: http://athousandsisters.com/. We were there to talk with Mr. Reynolds about the Congo and our experiences there. The show is scheduled to air this Friday, April 16, between 12pm and 1 pm PST. However, depending on the news cycle it could be moved to a different time. If you are interested, I am sure you can listen live online. The Web site is: http://www.kuow.org/conversation/

The show taping today was a chance to reflect on some of what I have seen. I don’t think I nearly conveyed all of that, maybe a small bit if I was successful, and I do hope that I sounded articulate. It’s so funny how such a thing can be so nerve-wracking even when no one can see you and you know they’ll edit it all to make it sound coherent! Or at least I hope! And while talking about some of the reporting I did, I failed to mention that a piece about children born of rape will be published in the Christian Science Monitor. As soon as it’s done I will hopefully be able to send KUOW the link to post on their site, but I am not sure of our pub date yet. I feel terrible for forgetting! Well, hopefully there will be more opportunities.

Lisa was great on the show. It was so fun to reconnect with her this way. We met while at the Hotel Orchid in Bukavu. Our trips overlapped by a few days. Her book has just come out and I highly recommend it. It is full of thoughtful insights and well-wrought observations. Reading it has made me think so much about my own experiences in Congo — a place that is a jumble of complicated feelings, the more so the longer I am home and thinking about it. Sometimes I am inspired there, I am often humbled — especially by the courage and strength of the women I have met — and I am buoyed by the ability of people who have suffered so much to still be so generous to others. Yet I have been maddened, frustrated, angry, and hopeless too. It is a place that gets under your skin. It is a place I will continue to go back to.

I have been stunned, really, by how much it is on my mind now. I think it is because, of course, I am still finishing stories now that I reported there, so I am busy rifling through my notebooks and remembering my interviews. Yet it also because now I have the time and the space to let it in. The result is not always easy. As a journalist I struggle, and I probably always will, with needing to get on the inside to tell a good story but to simultaneously remain on the outside in order to tell a true and fair story. At times it frustrates me, it saddens me, not to be able to do more than just write. I hope that one day this effort will feel like enough.

Anyway, catch the show if you can. And look out for more stories from Congo in the Christian Science Monitor and Women’s eNews!