Sexual violence: Is anybody listening to the women of the DRC?

Published, Caritas News magazine, Issue 112, Autumn 2008.

 

In 1989, Lulu Mitshabu had to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo ‘very quickly’ as violence and conflict in the area escalated to extreme heights. Lulu is Caritas Australia’s Program Officer for Africa, and her memories of her country are conflicted by “a beautiful sense of family and community that care for each other” and a harsh dictatorship where there were “no human rights, and no democracy.”

The situation in the DRC is severe, but the worst thing Lulu says is the lack of international attention, “this humanitarian crisis has not happened overnight, it’s been going on for such a long time, but the world kind of forgot about it”.

After 45 years of dictatorship and civil wars the DRC’s infrastructure is almost completely destroyed. Disease and malnutrition is extreme, violence continues to claim the lives of thousands a day, and sexual violence against women is so great that the UN has declared it the worst in the world.

Lulu is from a province directly above Kivu in the country’s east, where some of the worst violence is taking place, and although she is always remarkably composed when talking about the displacement and violence, her bewilderment is evident, “around 370 000 people are displaced in that region alone. That’s just massive”, she says shaking her head.

When she goes on to talk about the sexual violence – it is estimated that 40% of women in this region are raped daily – she is blunt and frank,  “they don’t just rape the women, they use objects. I don’t think there is anywhere in the world with such violence towards women”.

“It’s unbelievable” she continues, “you just have to be there to see that the number of women being raped is so high. Every second woman you meet knows someone who has been raped. If it’s not her, it’s her cousin, her daughter, her mother. It’s everybody.”

“And its not just women that are suffering, men have committed suicide over this. I think it is about time people started talking about it” she says determinedly, “it is for this reason that there is no way Caritas Australia could turn away”.

Caritas Australia works in the DRC through its local partner organisation, Caritas Goma, supporting Sexual Assault and HIV/AIDs programs. The Sexual Assault program provides counselling to women, recommends services to women, begins judicial processes on their behalf, informs women about how they can protect themselves, and provides access to essential health services.

Particularly special about the program in Lulu’s eyes is the women’s groups. “The groups are places for the women to feel safe. They come together and talk about their experiences, and they learn from each other, and that is really fantastic to see”.

But despite the positive these programs bring, there are so many things that need to be done.

“We want the international community’s attention” Lulu implores. “There is no system for punishing those people that are assaulting these women. There is no respect for human rights. The country is not working, nothing is working. You cannot punish people when there are no institutions working”.

When asked about her hopes for the future, she immediately replies, “I think everybody is praying for peace, that’s the key.” She pauses before adding, “what I really want is for my people to have a sense of hope, and not feel that everyone is looking away”.



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