This post is by Emmicki Roos.
Imagine your village being attacked, your loved ones brutalized or even killed. Imagine being gang raped and humiliated in front of your children. Imagine having to walk for days or even weeks to get medical assistance. What would be hard for most of us to imagine is reality for many women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Since the Second Congo War began in 1998, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been raped. Rebel groups as well as the Congolese army (which is responsible for civilian protection) are using sexual violence systematically as a weapon of war to terrorize the local population. Despite the formal ending of the war in 2003, fighting continues to plague Eastern Congo. In 2009, 5,000 women were reported to have been raped in South Kivu alone, according to the UN. However, the number of rapes is likely much higher considering that few are able or willing to report such crimes.
In the midst of systematic sexual violence — which makes the Democratic Republic of Congo a difficult place to be a woman, Panzi Hospital is offering medical assistance and rehabilitation to survivors. The hospital which is located in the capital of South Kivu, Bukavu, was built in 1999 under the supervision of Dr. Denis Mukwege, its founder and current medical director, with funding from Swedish and British development funds and the Swedish NGOs PMU and Läkarmissionen.
Between 1999 and June 2010, the hospital treated 25,441 women for gynecological conditions, many of them severe cases of trauma from sexual violence. 5,812 operations have been performed, including 2,551 cases of fistula repair. Fistula, which is all too common in the Congo, is something that few have heard of. When extreme violence is used during rape it can cause severe injuries to a woman’s reproductive organs. A fistula occurs when the wall between a woman’s vagina and the bladder and/or rectum tears. This condition is extremely painful and leads to the continuous involuntary discharge of urine. In addition to being painful, the fistula causes the woman to smell, which often leads to social exclusion and hence emotional distress.
When rape survivors arrive at Panzi Hospital they are in need of both physical and psychological care. Before surgery the survivor’s psychological stability is assessed. After surgery it takes about three weeks to heal physically. In addition to medical assistance the hospital offers legal assistance, socio-economic reintegration, and psycho-social care. By offering these services, Panzi Hospital is giving survivors of sexual violence a future. In a culture where rape is taboo, the psychological and sociological consequences are often as serious as the medical. Finding a way to navigate through stigmatization and social exclusion is a matter of survival.
Despite what many women at Panzi Hospital have endured, there is still hope. There is hope because these women refuse to give up. Dr Mukwege explains:
“When I started to receive women at the hospital, I didn’t think I would see what I have seen. I see women and young girls who don’t have genitals anymore, and they stand up and they fight for others and they fight for their rights. They even fight for me and my rights. I have met men who have experienced trauma that is less than what these women have experienced, and they are nearly suicidal. They don’t have the same coping mechanisms as women. These women are remarkable.” (Huffington Post)
I wrote this article to raise awareness about the situation for women in the Congo and the vital work of the Panzi Hospital. I like to think that when people are made aware of such horrific acts of violence they feel obliged to act. Nevertheless, I can’t get Dr Mukwege’s words out of my mind “If we have awareness, we should get action. Because it is not only to know, but to act.”
In recent years, awareness has been raised about the sexual violence in the Congo, but where is the action? Women and girls are still being raped in the Congo on such a scale that it has been called the rape capital of the world. If we do not act faced with such brutality, then when will we act?
We all carry a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in our pockets. Our cell phones and laptops contains the mineral coltan. Of the world’s coltan reserves, 80% can be found in the Congo. Like so many other conflicts, the conflict in the Congo is fueled by natural resources. Rebel groups are fighting over the control of coltan and other minerals and are using the profits to fund their military campaigns. Some of these rebel groups are funded and supported by the governments of neighboring countries (e.g. Rwanda and Uganda) who have a stake in the mineral trade.
We as consumers of coltan have power; we could force the manufacturers of cell phones and laptops and other electronic devices containing coltan to declare where it comes from and pressure them to stop buying it from sources funding the conflict.
As citizens we also have power; we could pressure our governments to put diplomatic pressure on neighboring states involved in the conflict, as well as economic sanctions and a cut in development funding if necessary. We could push our governments to pressure the Congolese government to reform its security sector, responsible for some of the atrocities committed against civilians.
A lot could be done to change the situation for women in the Congo, but it takes more than awareness and words, it takes determination and action.
Emmicki Roos has a master’s degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights and has conducted research on the reintegration of survivors of sexual violence in Kenya at the Gender Violence Recovery Centre in Nairobi. Roos has since worked for Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee in London as well as for the former (UN) Senior Advisor and Coordinator on Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Roos currently works as a consultant researcher and advocate on gender and conflict and is the founder of the Women, Peace, and Security blog, which is part of NATO’s Library Research Guide on women, peace, and security and is used by Ch16.org under women and girls in conflict.