Sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: victims on trial
Over the past 10 years, rape and sexual assault have been perpetrated on a regular basis by armed groups operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In recent years, sexual violence has also been committed by civilians and former fighters. Most of these crimes go unpunished. Nancy Baudoin, who recently completed an assignment in the country as a psychosocial delegate, talks about how the ICRC assists the victims.
In addition to conducting its traditional activities aimed at protecting people from serious abuses such as massacres, looting, killings and rape, the ICRC runs programmes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo specifically desi gned to provide comprehensive assistance for the victims of sexual violence. Multidisciplinary teams offer medical care, facilitate psychosocial reintegration and implement community-based prevention campaigns. In addition, an economic support programme is planned for 2008.
The ICRC works mainly through local associations for rape victims. It trains volunteers to identify, listen to and advise victims and provides material aid to facilities set up for their benefit, such as the maisons d’écoute .
What are the maisons d'écoute and how do they work?
The maisons d'écoute are shelters for victims of sexual violence. They are run by volunteers from local associations and provide a place where people can come and talk in private, far from prying eyes, about what happened to them. They also provide housing for as long as necessary – sometimes weeks or even months – for young girls and women who have been rejected by their families or husbands following a rape. Most of these shelters are dilapidated and provide only mats or beds made of banana leaves to sleep on.
I met many women and children who came to the shelters to talk about their ordeal, seek advice and rest. Many arrive broken, exhausted and hungry – some have had to walk for days to get there – and they are both physically depleted and emotionally distraught.As soon as they arrive at the shelters, victims of sexual violence are referred to a medical facility for treatment (see interview with ICRC nurse Amalia Larralde ). The volunteers do their utmost to meet the basic needs of these people – they feed the hungry and provide new outfits for those whose clothes are in tatters. The volunteers are so dedicated that they often dip into their own meagre resources to help out. I remember one volunteer who, with traditional Congolese solidarity and generosity, shared the sweet potato she was saving for her four children with a woman who had just arrived at the shelter.
What happens to babies who are born after a rape?
Some " rape babies " are rejected. The rejection can be total and brutal, leading to infanticide. In other cases, they are abandoned or mistreated by their mothers, whom they remind of the ordeal they went through and of all the unhappiness that ensued. But in most of the cases of rejection that I witnessed or was told about, the baby was stigmatized by the mother's husband or family, not by the mother herself.
The identity of the rapist is often a determining factor in whether or not the child is rejected. Rejection is all the more likely if the rapist is a stranger to the community or, worse, if he is perceived to be an enemy.
What can be done so that rape victims are no longer rejected or stigmatized?
Awareness-raising campaigns within affected communities can help prevent rejection and stigmatization. However, progress is slow and there are few immediate results: to convince people that victims are not guilty means changing mentalities and breaking down ancient taboos and prejudices. In order to give such campaigns greater impact, we try to bring on board influential community members.
As part of this effort, the ICRC has produced a video for distribution in the regions most affected by the violence. It shows a play that deals with v arious issues relating to rape, such as the risk of rape becoming commonplace, the stigmatization and rejection of rape victims and their children, and the health risks associated with rape.
Volunteers working in the shelters are also frequently asked by rape victims to come and talk to their families. They serve as mediators between the victims and their relatives, with sometimes encouraging results. Proper training of the volunteers increases the chances of success. In August and September 2007, 60 volunteers received such training.
Do rape victims receive economic assistance to help them regain a place in society?
Many rape victims, ostracized by their families and communities, find themselves alone with their children, unable to earn a living and with no access to the job market.
In order to overcome their trauma and live a life of dignity, these women must have a guaranteed source of income. As of 2008, the ICRC will provide economic support for micro-projects set up by local partner associations to help them.
Most of these micro-projects are managed by shelters and shaped by local economic conditions. They include agricultural, livestock-breeding and small business projects for both victims of sexual violence and other vulnerable people, such as the poor and the disabled.
Was there a case that particularly struck you?
It's difficult to single out any one case. Many different faces and stories come to mind…
I remember an eleven-year-old girl who managed to escape from her 18-year-old attacker. Her courage and luck were met with severe criticism. Since women are guilty by definition, she was rejected by her entire community, who considered her a " man hater. "
I was also struck by the many women who, desperate to be allowed to return to their husbands or families, kept begging forgiveness for having been a victim.
And I was deeply impressed by the sense of solidarity and the perseverance demonstrated by the volunteers who had worked for years in the shelters, no matter how dangerous the area or how precarious the conditions, to help these " raped mommies. " I am forever indebted to them for the invaluable lesson in humanity they gave me.See alsofeature on sexual violence in the DRC that includes the stories of two women.