Amalia Larralde, why do some bearers of arms invariably resort to sexual violence?
Unfortunately, sexual violence is fairly widespread in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the height of the conflict, attacking women was one way of terrorizing the entire civilian population and making it flee so that an area could be occupied. Today, sexual violence, such as rape, tends to follow looting. It still goes unpunished and the cohesion of the community suffers as much as it ever did. Many women are disowned because they are regarded as unfaithful or the bearers of death. That might be because of the fear of AIDS, but some people also believe that a mother’s milk is poisoned for ever after. As for the husbands of these women, they feel deeply dishonoured.
Women of all ages often become victims of rape or sexual violence during attacks on villages or while they are working in the fields. Most of the time, these acts are committed by armed men, sometimes on their own, sometimes in groups, in the presence of the woman’s family, her husband and her children
In this situation what action does the ICRC take to help the victims?
The ICRC tackles various medical and psychosocial aspects of the problem. A special care programme for rape victims has been introduced in ICRC-supported health facilities in the east of the DRC. The programme includes preventive treatment against possible infection with HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy and sexually tr ansmissible diseases within 72 hours of the act.
The nurses and doctors in these centres have also been trained in the reception and care of these women. The first contacts with victims are all-important, for they are traumatized and often scared that everyone will find out that they have been raped. You must listen to them and gain their trust so that you can conduct a physical examination in order to detect any possibly serious after-effects of these rapes.
The ICRC also arranges for the transfer of victims to a hospital centre with a specialized surgical unit. A team of specialized surgeons carry out these operations at Panzi hospital in Bukavu and, last year, the ICRC helped with the training of one of these Congolese surgeons in Addis Abeba where the reference centre for Africa is located.
What role do traditional practioners play in your programme?
In the Congo, an injured, raped or sick woman generally goes to traditional practioners in prayer houses, or to traditional midwives. We therefore work with them to make sure that victims of sexual violence who are being cared for in the community are immediately sent to health centres where they will rapidly receive the right preventive treatment.
Moreover, work with traditional practitioners has the added advantage that some traditional plant-based formulae alleviate what can sometimes be the severe secondary effects of the medical treatment. This collaboration has produced very good results which are also reflected in an increase in the number of victims referred to health facilities by community practitioners after this exercise in awareness-raising.
Can one really do anything to prevent sexual violence?
Yes. If we want to have any impact here, we must talk about the subject openly and the ICRC broaches the question from various angles. For example, a play was put on with the help of an association of local artists. This play denounced rape and its consequences, such as stigmatization and rejection by the community where the victim lives. Through the play we get across a number of messages encouraging the community to readmit the raped women, or reminding the rapists that they too have a mother, a wife or a daughter.
The purpose of cooperating with local associations is also to find outreach workers who can heighten the awareness of their own community and of other people as well. In addition, some members of these associations are trained to offer initial and ongoing assistance to women in this situation, by listening to them and by helping them to get back on their feet and find ways of integrating in society again. Many victims are in a desperate situation – their husband has left them and they find themselves on their own, with their children, without work or financial support. It is therefore vital that the community takes an interest in them.
Rape can also be prevented by promoting an awareness of international humanitarian law among bearers of arms. D uring dissemination sessions, the question of rape and sexual violence, which international humanitarian law defines as war crimes, is discussed with a view to preventing and putting an end to these violations. This promotion of law takes place in organized classes, but also on a one-to-one basis in the field.
What are your most vivid memories of your work with the victims of sexual violence?
All the victims I met moved me. For example, one woman came to the hospital with a bullet wound she had received during an attack on her village. Her assailants had entered her home, killed her husband, wounded her and then raped her.
This woman was 70. I looked at her lying in bed and I had the impression that only her body was there because, really, the light inside her had gone out. Her eyes were dull and she hardly spoke. In such cases, one does wonder what one can possibly do. But when she left after being looked after properly and being comforted a little bit, I thought that one could be of some use after all.
In conclusion, I would say that there are signs of a change for the better, for people everywhere are starting more and more to talk about the subject and this is beginning to have an impact in terms of prevention.