The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is formally over, but women and girls remain targets for violence. Still today, all warring parties in Congo routinely use sexual violence as a weapon of war and a tool of social control. The rebels know that women are the center of the community. They learned long ago that if you damage them, you tear the community apart, destabilize the area and gain a stronghold.
We know that rape destroys the bodies and spirits of girls and women and breaks up families. Women become fearful of working in the fields and taking goods to sell at market, reducing family incomes. Many who are raped are abandoned by their husbands or families, lose their homes and their livelihoods. Some women suffer indescribable internal injuries that can take years of complicated surgeries to correct; many are left unable to have more children or incontinent.
The scars of rape can be inherited by the next generation as well. A byproduct of rape—one that perhaps has not received the attention it deserves—is the number of unwanted pregnancies that result from rape. Many women become pregnant by their perpetrators and are left alone to raise the child, a constant reminder of the traumatic and devastating event. Most care for these children with few resources. They remain uneducated and impoverished.
Everywhere we go in Congo, we meet women who were raped and impregnated. Brigitte was raped at 16 years old and left pregnant and alone. Bora saw her parents killed and later was captured and held as a “wife” by the FDLR rebels. She too was impregnated. Katrina was raped by members of an armed group after her husband was killed. Her two young daughters were also raped. Her family abandoned her, calling her a “sorceress” and blaming her for the attacks. She was left alone to care for her two daughters both of whom became pregnant as a result of the rapes.
And then there was Sabine, her belly filled with the child of one of the many men who raped her repeatedly over three weeks. She was 18 years old and had been captured by the Interahamwe (the rebel group known as the FDLR) when she was 17. We met her, alone and scared, at the HEAL Africa hospital waiting for the birth of her child. She had no money and no education. She did not know how she would take care of her child. All she could tell us was that it was easier not knowing who the father of her child was. It could be any one of those men, she told us. The mystery let her detach a little of the blame for the crime committed against her from her child. Even so, when we asked how she felt about becoming a mother, Sabine responded with ambivalence. “They told me my child is innocent,” she said. “I guess I’ll have to believe that.”
The actual number of women and girls raped in eastern Congo is unknown, but experts say the scale is enormous; a 2011 study found that more than 1,100 women and girls are raped each day in Congo.
Data is a scarce commodity in Congo, but we know that a significant number of unwanted pregnancies result from these devastating rapes each year. While most NGOs that can get to survivors of sexual violence within 72 hours will administer emergency contraception, if a woman does become pregnant her options are severely limited. Abortion is illegal in Congo except to save the life of the woman—it’s rare to find someone who will even speak to you about it openly there—and infrequent at best.
The ripple effects here are profound. A woman who has survived rape already faces serious stigma and obstacles to physical and emotional healing. A woman pregnant from rape sees those obstacles increase exponentially—a family that may have been willing to forgive the “shame” of rape may very well not tolerate the additional burden of a baby, especially a baby they may well consider (and often call) a “snake” in their midst.
We also see a considerable diversion of resources to support women and their unwanted children. Orphanages are swollen with abandoned children (adoption is inexplicably complicated in Congo, with the government actively blocking exit visas for international adoptions and dictating complex, often impossible processes for domestic ones). Significant dollars are allocated to programs to reunite women with their children. Even more dollars are dedicated to provide economic and educational opportunities for women who have no home and no livelihood to return to.
There are truly wonderful Congolese community organizations that are providing women with the inspiration, support and resources that they need to rebuild their lives. They are supporting them with educational opportunities, leadership training and job skills. And more and more, similar programs are sprouting up to work with men. They target the general public and demobilized soldiers, who are reentering society after years of living in an environment of unbelievable violence and lawlessness. They teach men to honor and protect women, helping them to develop a new understanding about how they treat those of the opposite sex. These are the programs, and the communities, that leave us hopeful for Congo’s future.
The conflict has left millions of women damaged, but not destroyed. And what is so inspiring is that these women do have the resilience to find a way to make a better life for themselves and their children. On our first trip to Congo we met a 15-year-old girl. She had been raped at 14, her little boy was already a few months old. But she held on to him with love, and told us she had named him Angel.
In the new issue of Ms., we reveal how U.S. foreign policy is impeding women’s access worldwide to abortion after rape in war. Subscribe today and get the Fall 2104 issue to read more about this crisis, then sign our Life the Ban petition urging the Obama administration to allow U.S. foreign aid to fund war-rape abortions.