Visit to Democratic Republic of Congo
NOBEL LAUREATES, 2 Jul 2012
Nobel Women’s Initiative, 8t –14th May, 2012
“We People of the DRC Must Stop Raping Ourselves.”
— Julienne Lusange, SOFEPADI, at launch of Stop Rape in Conflict Campaign – Kinshasa, DRC, 11th May, 2012.
On 8th May, 2012, Ann Patterson and I travelled to the Kinshasa, in DRC, to join Yee Htun, Coordinator of the Nobel Womens Initiative International Campaign to Stop Rape in Conflict, and help launch the international campaign, to ‘Stop Rape in Conflict’. This was being launched simultaneously in four countries: Colombia, Kenya, Burma and the DRC in May, 2012.
We had been invited to DRC by Julienne Lusenge of SOFEPADI-Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral, an NGO working to support survivors of rape in conflict, to be present at the international launch of the DRC campaign in Kinshasa on 11th May, 2012. (Julienne is also a member of the Advisory Board of the International Campaign and we had the pleasure of meeting her several times in Europe).
During the week we met with the president of the DRC Parliament, with Ministry of Justice officials, the Minister of Gender, and several other government officials. We also had meetings with the Canadian Ambassador, and at the MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo) headquarters with the heads of the UN’s campaign to stop rape and gender violence.
We were accompanied to these meetings by several Congolese women, who were themselves survivors of Rape in conflict and also by Julienne Lusenge of SOFEPADI and Josee Ngalula of Fonds Pour Les Femmes Congolaises (FFC) who facilitated the meetings. The meeting with the President of the DRC Parliament was very moving. The President listened closely whilst the two survivors of rape (Mawa and Leoni) told their stories. He was visibly moved when the women said they were raped by armed government soldiers, and one of the women’s daughters (14) was also raped. They asked for compensation and protection from the armed soldiers and the president promised to appoint a lawyer to follow up their cases. The President said that the war has its roots in conflict in East Congo in mining and minerals, where armed gangs, rebels, foreign groups, are all in conflict, so the problem is deeply complex. However, he said, the government is looking at ways to stop all kinds of violence and bring peace to DRC.
The Campaign ‘Stop Rape in Conflict’ was officially launched at the Carter Centre, in Kinshasa, on 11th May, 2012. Several women from the survivors’ group, who travelled a very long distance to be present, came together with many local grassroots activists (at least 50% of attendees were men), foreign diplomats, the Secretary
General of the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, and the head of MONUSCO.
The launch was televised and received excellent press coverage from every news outlet in the DRC. Julienne Lusenge spoke passionately about the need to end rape and sexual violence, an end to impunity, and appealed to men to get involved in this important campaign as men are raped too. Julienne said ‘we people of the DRC must stop rape ourselves’. I made an appeal for an end to war, rape, and all violence, more support for the survivors of rape, and also more support for the grass roots organizations whose nonviolent work is so necessary.
The stories of the two women survivors who had been raped moved many of the people in the room to tears. However, it was their dignity and courage which gave hope to us all that this horrific crime of rape can be stopped when enough people speak out and act to put an end to it and government legislate again this and act on their responsibility to protect their women (and men) against such horrific and criminal abuse by their own government soldiers, and others.
One of the problems is that when women get pregnant after being raped by DRC soldiers, they have no redress. They could be helped if the DRC authorities and MONUSCO made their military, security, etc., accountable for their crime of rape, and this could be done if they held a DNA base for all security personnel. We were advised that MONUSCO have a DNA base but currently it is not compulsory for their soldiers to comply with this. We believe this should be made compulsory and it would be one important step to protecting the women of DRC and other countries such as Haiti, where reports of rape by UN soldiers in refugee camps have taken place. Also change can come when people have the courage to break the taboo and silence around this crime of rape. Telling their story helps survivors survive, but also helps others become aware that this is happening and act to stop it.
One woman survivor, with great courage and dignity told her story: She said that on l Jan 2010 army soldiers came into their village. They raped her along with other 50 women and brutalized a further 25 with sticks and weapons. They burned the village and left. She said the women got no medical care. Three days later soldiers were brought to a Mobile Court and found guilty but were released after only a few days to rejoin their military units. The soldier who raped her, having been charged and released, returned to the village and raped her 14 year old daughter. At a Mobile Court, the women got judgment in their favour but received no papers and as they cannot afford to pay for these papers they cannot apply for compensation. However, if they can get the paper stating the judgment was in their favour they can get government compensation and go back to their families in the village. (They are often abandoned by their husbands after Rape, and young unmarried girls stigmatized and abandoned by their families).
Another woman survivor, who works with a group of 200 survivors, said that none of the group, who had received judgment in their favour, ever got papers. (Earlier that week when our delegation met with the Justice Ministry official, he promised they would take up these cases and provide papers for them and that in future papers would be provided free of charge. We considered this a very important commitment by the Justice Ministry and hope they will meet this commitment as soon as possible for the sake of the survivors).
One of the women survivors said they have no transport and the villages are completely cut off. If, after rape and abuse, women try to walk through the forests they can be attacked and raped again by soldiers. The woman survivors told us that their villages are often a long way from a hospital, and as they have no one to look after their children they cannot leave them unprotected to go to hospital. She explained women and children suffer extreme trauma and there are few people trained to help them deal with this. After being raped by soldiers, men often put the women out of their homes so they have to go to shelters. There are few shelters available and homeless women and children in villages is an increasing daily problem. When asked what the churches were doing to help, one of the survivors replied, ‘they just tell us to pray’. (Some people said that they feel the churches should speak out on issues such as rape and sexual violence, but they are silent on the matter.)
The gov. promised by law retribution but because they cannot get paper of judgment they cannot get retribution (the money would help get them back into family). While some women have started up small business enterprises, sadly many women cannot work because of abuse and several of the survivors appealed for gynecologists and psychologists to come to their villages to help them in their healing and recovery.
One of the most hopeful things is that, as one man explained, ‘ten years ago no one
spoke of rape of women (and men) by government soldiers, and others; today it is being acknowledged and legislation and action being put in place to stop this crime of rape and sexual violence. There is no doubt that the three pillars to the international campaign to stop rape, Prevention, Protection and Prosecution, are urgent and vital in the DRC but it will take a strong determination and real leadership to eradicate these problems, and also the international community to see that much more funding is put in place to help DRC get to grips with the roots of this terrible suffering of their people.
The UN, amongst others, is working in DRC to help stabilize a very volatile and dangerous situation as poverty, violence and war threaten the country. (Ten million people live in Kinshasa.) Families are suffering as the government has little money and most families can only afford one meal every other day! There is no money for teachers and for those lucky enough to attend school, their families have to find the money to pay the teachers. Downtown Kinshasa has dirt tracks for roads, and many burnout building testify to the violence and fear in these areas. With so many people unemployed and with a currently weak government, this situation, unless helped, has the potential for more violence. Some people expressed their frustration at MONUSCO and felt they are not doing enough to help people on the ground, and that so much more could be done by them. Several people expressed their frustration as they believed that not enough of the international aid from both UN and foreign governments gets to the grassroots and to the people who are trying to deal with the problems on the ground. Activists also felt there was not enough communication and dialogue between gov./people, national and international NGOs. However, we felt we were able to open a very important channel of communication between national and international NGOs and more importantly give the survivors a voice during our presence in the DRC.
More than anything the DRC needs peace and an end to war, violence and poverty, the roots of many problems. I hope the international community will increase its development aid to DRC (an important country in Africa) and particularly focus on supporting local communities, many of whom continue to non-violently solve their problems.
I left the DRC full of hope and inspiration that I got from its people. In spite of facing great challenges they are friendly and welcoming to the stranger and maintain a sense of community and love. My abiding and strongest image is of the elegance and beauty of the Congolese women. Their strong spirits and strength of character even in the face of great hardship came shining through. I was amazed at the grace with which they moved – tall, unhurried and elegant, their long coloured dresses clinging to their slim bodies. (I saw a gentleness and patience, seldom seen in the West where we are often impatient and always in a hurry!).
In the sweltering heat of the hot sun, the men worked very hard, digging down the deep holes to lay the pipes and build the roads, and the young boys dug up stones to sell to the men, who come along to fill in the pot-holes. Buildings were going up and on the outskirts of Kinshasa, where we stayed, the palm trees and tropical flowers reminded us of the beauty of the DRC and its people, and its great possibility and potential in this amazingly mineral-rich country on the Equator.
When Ann and I left, we took the people of the DRC in our hearts, and we look
forward to returning someday when all violence and war ends, nonviolence has taken deep roots and its amazing people, like Julienne and her family and friends, see their dreams for a peaceful and just DRC comes true.
Contact in DRC: Julienne Lusenge: Fonds pour les Femmes Congolaises: www.ffcrdc.org
Mairead Corrigan Maguire is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. She won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for her work for peace in Northern Ireland. Her book The Vision of Peace (edited by John Dear, with a foreword by Desmond Tutu and a preface by the Dalai Lama) is available from www.wipfandstock.com. She lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. See: www.peacepeople.com.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 Jul 2012.
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