Eastern DRC: widespread sexual violence against women threatens families
Countless women in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have fallen prey to sexual violence carried out by armed bands. The ICRC provides support to local groups which help traumatized women recover. Bernard Barrett reports on the scourge of Kivu and meets two of the victims.
Sexual violence against women
" Rape can be used as a weapon to undermine the whole social structure, " says Wilhelmine Ntakebuka, the head of the Vico centre for victim s of sexual violence in Bakuvu and Walungu. Sexual violence is often used to weaken any opposition in the population. "
The centre provides psycho-social support and training in literacy, sewing and embroidery as well as material assistance to victims. Most of the women have come to Bukavu for treatment from small villages near the forests that provide refuge for various armed groups.
" Before, sexual violence was isolated and hidden, " says Ntakebuka, known as Mama Vico to her protégés. " Now it is done in front of everyone: the victim's husband, her children, the whole community. No one can pretend it didn't happen.”
Because of high unemployment in the region, the women are in many cases the economic mainstay of their families, she adds. " Often the woman thinks she is marginalized, of no use. She no longer has the courage to go about her daily work or even assume her role within the family. "
Marnie Lloydd, an ICRC delegate in South Kivu, says: " After a rape, there is the initial trauma and need for medical treatment. But there are longer term medical issues such as infections or HIV. Some of the attacks are so brutal, they leave serious or even permanent internal damage.
“There is also long term psychological trauma. In addition, the victim may no longer be accepted by her community or even by her husband, and hence be separated from her children. "
The ICRC is helping victims by supporting Mama Vico’s Walungu centre and by providing medication. It also gives post-rape PEP kits – with treatment intended to help stop the transmission of disease – to health centres in the regions concerned (these kits are intended for victims who have managed to obtain care within 72 hours of being raped). It has trained health care workers in psycho-social care and it supports several counselling centres and homes for victims. It also makes female-led households a priority for assistance.
In the small village of Bunyakiri, four hours’ drive north of Bukavu, representatives of 15 associations that provide support for the victims of sexual violence are meeting with the ICRC representatives at the local hospital. One of the issues they are discussing is the reluctance of many victims to come forward because they fear stigmatization.
Namungaaga Babika, v ice-president of one of the associations, says: " We tell women not to hide rape cases and to come to the hospital as soon as possible. We also try to convince them they are still important and they can continue to help their families economically. We help them and we show them how to help themselves and their families. "
André Munyali, president of another association, adds: " About 500 women have been treated here at the hospital. But a number of victims do not come for treatment because of shame, so they hide themselves.
" Rape in our society is considered dirty, " he says. " The woman is sometimes rejected by her family; she becomes helpless and cannot help them, because they do not want to be assisted by someone who is “dirty”. Rape affects the woman and the whole family. "
One of the women attending the meeting adds: " They deliberately rape in front of the husbands and fathers. The objective is to destroy the woman and to destroy the family, to break the ties between mother, father and children…”
Not all women victims of sexual violence seek help, out of shame or fear of stigmatization. One of them who did is a woman aged 27, who calls herself Bebe.
" I was raped twice. The first time, an armed group took me to the forest where they raped me. Then they demanded $200 from my family and I was sent home. I was treated at the Panzi hospital. Everything was fine with my husband and later I became pregnant.”
In 2005, when Bebe was six months pregnant, armed men came to her village again.
" My v illage is located in an area where armed groups pass all the time. This time they came to my house. There were 15 soldiers, five of them raped me. My husband was beaten and forced under the bed during the rapes. I resisted at first but they stabbed my hand with a knife. Then I just let them do what they wanted, I had no strength.
" Later I was taken by Mama Vico to the Panzi hospital. My husband stayed at another hospital because of the beating he had received. Although I tested negative for HIV at the hospital, my husband refused to see me saying he would no longer share a wife with armed men.
" After long discussions with Mama Vico, my husband accepted to come back with me. So for the time being he is staying with me. " Mama Vico found a house for them in Bukavu and is paying their rent. Along with other women, Bebe receives psycho-social support as well as literacy, sewing and embroidery classes at the Vico centre.
" Being with other women is very helpful, " she says. " Before, when I saw people talking together, I thought they were laughing at me because I had been raped. But by listening to the others here and to Mama Vico, I realize I am not the only victim and it helps me accept my situation.
" When other women arrive here, I tell them I used to be like them but now I am getting better. They start to accept their situation and get better as well. Our hope is that we can be well, if peace returns. "
A teenager, who we’ll call Soso, has twice been the victim of rape attacks by armed groups – one of many in the dangerous areas of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
" The first time was in 2003. I was 14 years old. They came at night and broke into our house. They beat my father and t ook everything valuable in the house. We had to carry the goods they had stolen into the forest for them.
" We were four girls and two men. All along the road, they beat the men but told the girls not to be afraid. Then they raped two of the girls and sent them home. " Soso and another girl were then taken into the forest and raped there.
" In 2006, they came back to our village. They surprised us and captured the village chief. When they reached the forest, they locked the chief in a house and set it on fire. Then they raped us, one girl after the other.
" In our village we are used to unending conflict. Each time we would move away, but the armed groups would always find us. They always discovered where we hide and then there was no way to protect ourselves. "
" My life has completely changed since the two attacks. After the last one I became pregnant. From that time, I was helpless. My father died and my family does not have the means to take care of me. I had to come to Bukavu on my own, for safety. Fortunately I heard of Mama Vico and she is doing her best to take care of me and my son.
" My life has become difficult, I am unhappy that I can't live my life in a normal way. I do not have faith or hope for a better life in the future. I was raped while I was a little girl.
“I cannot be married now with a baby and I do not know the father. I am not able to take care of him if he is ill, or even to feed and clothe him properly. "