She was raped by a man claiming to be a pastor. He was newly arrived in her village, so when that she felt she needed help with her husband and his refusal to provide for her, she went to see the “pastor” to pray. Instead, he robbed her and raped her and then fled the village soon after. When her husband found out about the rape, he left her disgraced and alone with five children to care for. She sat at home afraid for two days in her torn clothes until a volunteer with the Gender-Based Sexual Violence Program found her and brought her for services at the Rape and Crisis Center in Chambucha, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Bora, another young woman, was forced into an arranged marriage at 15. When she said that she wanted to stay in school, her parents issued an ultimatum: marry him or live on your own. She acquiesced, only to find that when she became pregnant her husband refused to take care of her. Starving and living in filth, she and her baby developed scabies. Again, a volunteer from the GBSV Program helped her to connect to services and start a new life.
The Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, a clinic that Jewish World Watch has helped to build with International Medical Corps (IMC), sees 10 to 15 new rape cases a month. Panzi Hospital in Bukavu treats approximately 1,200 new cases of rape a year. A small, remote village we visited had seven rapes in the past two months. The statistics go on and on. Everywhere we meet women who have been raped and abandoned. Many of the women became pregnant, and must now care for children who are forever reminders of that terrible moment. These numbers are truly overwhelming and devastating to contemplate.
Many women are raped by the militia, but we have begun to hear more and more often that many of the perpetrators are friends or neighbors. One of the most disturbing things we hear as well is that often a girl’s family will try to “settle” financially with the rapist instead of pressing charges. Other times, the family forces the woman to marry her rapist to save the family honor. She is never comforted or helped. She is now a humiliation, a disgrace, and she is forced out of the family.
The word that is repeated frequently is “impunity”–the men rape with “impunity.” But why? There are many reasons people give: poverty, a traumatized population after so many years of conflict, men in the military who have been treated like animals and now feel the need to dominate someone else. The reasons continue, but finally we hear something more fundamental discussed–that Congo has an ongoing culture of gender inequity that has existed for decades.
The fact that men hold almost all the positions of power in Congo is not surprising. We know that only 8 percent of the seats in the Congo Parliament are held by women. We are aware that when we meet the local officials of the villages, there are never any women included. Women do not own their lives, let alone their bodies. As Tamara, a Director at IMC, tells us, “Women here are under the feet of men. Women have no power.” Then she added, “But we are changing that.”
On this trip to Congo, we find a new approach and new conversation that gives us hope. It seems that in every meeting, for the first time we hear people discuss the inequity in gender roles, and there are several new programs being developed to address the issue. For several years, we have supported a unique program called Sons of Congo whose goal is to teach men how to value and protect women. This trip we were pleased to see other programs have arise with the same goals–to change patriarchal views about the status and value of women while assisting women to understand their rights, legally and emotionally.
International Medical Corps has a program called Behavior Change and Communication (BCC) that works with local communities to train men and women around GBSV issues. While the program supports rape victims, it also helps the community to understand the inequity in gender roles. We met with one of the committees, a group of 21 men and women from a certain area who told us how the program had impacted their lives. One man said that after working with this group his eyes had been opened to how he was treating his family. After one session, he had gone home and had begged his wife for forgiveness. He realized that he had held all the power in the family and that that was unfair.
Another man admitted that, before the group, he did not know it was wrong to force his wife to have sex. A young woman told us that, before this class, she had been unable to speak in front of men–especially about rape–but now she can. The conversation was impressive and seemed very genuine. It’s difficult to imagine how these groups can change decades of belief systems, but miraculously it seems like they are doing exactly that.
Last time I was in Congo, I heard a man say that if his wife was raped he could not accept her back in his home. It made me despair, because this man was one of the leaders of his community. There are miles to go in Congo, literally and figuratively. This is a huge country, and there are decades of intolerance and cultural mores to change, decades of impunity. However with all the work being done now, it seems that Congo is starting on the right path albeit with baby steps.
Diana Buckhantz, who just returned from a trip to Congo’s eastern provinces, is a board member of Jewish World Watch (JWW), which fights against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo.While in Congo with fellow JWW board members Janice Kamenir-Reznik and Diane Kabat she met with JWW’s on-the-ground project partners, participated in the dedication of JWW’s Chambucha Rape and Crisis Center, and to work with survivors of Congo’s decades-long conflict.
Jewish World Watch partners with both Women for Women International and International Medical Corps to support the women of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. If you are interested in supporting this crucial work, please contact Naama Haviv at Naama@jww.org.
Photo of Sons of Congo by Naama Haviv