Women Activists Face Attack And Death For Assisting Rape Victims
Anne Rimmer reports on the dangers facing women human-rights defenders in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, despite the presence of the world’s largest UN peacekeeping force
On arrival at the border post from Rwanda to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one is struck by the beauty of the landscape: the simple wooden bridge that joins the two countries; the calm waters of Lake Kivu; the mist rising above the green of the forested hills; the pungent smells of diesel and wood smoke; the bright primary colours of the outfits of the women trading basic goods.
It is hard to believe that this tranquil scene is the entry point into eastern DRC, a region torn apart by horror and brutality.
There is an equation one can use to describe the situation. Take a region where women have no value in society. Add a plethora of undisciplined and hungry armed groups. Next add a situation of virtually total impunity where the perpetrators of rapes, mutilations and murders are hardly ever prosecuted, and the outcome has been called “the worst place to be a woman or a child”.
Eastern DRC is a deeply impoverished and underdeveloped area. Women human-rights defenders there told me that in the rural areas traditional communities are ruled by men. Women speak only when invited to do so.
They sit beneath men on low stools or on the ground. Only male children are deemed to be “real children” and girls are at best ignored, at worst despised.
If a married woman has sex with someone other than her husband – even if this is through rape – she is deemed to have brought dishonour upon her family and is liable to expulsion from the family home, without sons, without cooking pots and without farming implements.
Throughout the long and brutal war in DRC, women and children have been the innocent victims of rape, pillage, mutilation and killings by the various armed groups. The DRC army in the region is underpaid or unpaid and soldiers live off the local populations – using a combination of extortion, theft and violence, including rape, to promote compliance.
The Mai-Mai, community- based militias, also rape and pillage, and finally, but most brutally, there is the FDLR (the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda), which is almost entirely composed of Hutus who fled to DRC after the genocide in Rwanda and undoubtedly includes many genocide perpetrators.
Women in eastern DRC expressed the most fear of this armed group because the violence they use goes beyond comprehension.
Mary* turned to assisting rape survivors and other abused women after she suffered a horrific experience at the hands of an armed group who burst into her home in the early hours of the morning, cut her husband to pieces in front of her eyes and then raped her and her children.
She said: “I will never know happiness for myself again, but I can still help others.”
Sarah* pretends to be a nurse to explain her visits to hospital to assist raped women because, if she did this openly, she would be even more at risk. “You carry on [denouncing rapists] because if you stop they will kill you anyway, so you might as well continue your work and do some good,” she said
Despite the presence of UN peacekeepers in DRC, local communities continue to be the victims of these armed predatory groups. Brave women in the communities face attacks and death threats when they assist the many victims of rape.
These women human-rights defenders give the rape survivors shelter, information about medical assistance such as HIV prevention, counselling and support to denounce the rapists to the authorities.
Sadly, in the few cases where rape perpetrators are charged and detained, there are many instances of detainees bribing themselves out of custody, and also bribing themselves out of prison when convicted.
Women vividly expressed the debilitating horror and fear they felt when they saw, walking freely in the street, the rapist they believed had been sentenced to years of imprisonment.
At a workshop last week on security and protection for women human-rights defenders, one exercise involved women illustrating their paths as human-rights defenders with rocks and flowers.
The rocks illustrated the hard times, and flowers illustrated the positive moments, such as when a defender had been able to save a woman’s life or help a woman to be accepted back into her family after being raped, or had been instrumental in the conviction of a rapist.
The mood was sombre and intense. Each woman carefully selected a large handful of rocks and a handful of flowers and laid them along a natural path in the room. At the end, all the flowers had been used and the only remaining item was the largest rock. Despite the suffering that all had experienced, no one chose the largest rock.
One of the women explained this to me by saying: “Our suffering never ceases – there may be even harder times to come.”
The women do not understand why, although the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world is deployed in DRC, the rights of innocent women and children and those seeking to defend them still are not protected.
* Names have been changed to protect identities