What I feel is pain when thinking of all the women in Congo, in Africa, the women who were victims of sexual violence. Women who were the victim of the barbarism of crazy persons. Women who ARE victims of sexual violence because the unimaginable pain those women have lived in that exact moment and the scars will always be carried with them. Those women all around the world who once were voiceless now do have a voice.
Nowadays it has become the sad reality that rape is being used as a weapon of war where women in Congo are destroyed by firearms and knives and by different objects entering their bodies. Women who, just like you and me, wake up in the morning, not aware about what would happen to them later that day, who go to their fields to work to be able to feed the little mouths that are waiting for them at home. Usually there is no “later”. All kinds of militia terrorize their own little piece of land where everyone and everything moving on that piece of land is considered to be their property. Defenseless women are abducted and taken to camps deep in the mountains or the forest to be subjected to rape and slave labor. Sexual violence can be as damaging as bullets. Besides killing, it’s the worst thing that someone can do, because you’re forced to live with it. It destroys not only the bodies of the victims but damages the basic social constitution of local communities and stokes the armed conflict that has plagued the eastern Congo.
Where it all started…
The war in Congo started in 1996.In the beginning it started as an economic war which has been driven by a weak government and rich mineral resources, often in remote, forest-covered areas, where all the powerful countries of the world were involved. Those countries wanted to create a mess in order to control the mining industry.
There were, and still are lots of different groups of militias in Congo who all work for important people and for all these multi-nationals from other countries all around the world. Those multi-national corporations from all over the world have been involved in the exploitation of natural resources from the DR of Congo. These companies come from countries such as Belgium, Burundi, Finland, Israel, South-Africa and many more. Some of those corporations are strategic by using the militias because they know the forests and they have knowledge about how to protect the mines. It becomes so complicated that in the end the people of Congo do not know anymore who’s who or who is working for who. Who is the army, the police and who is not? These groups of militias are extremely poor. They have nothing so they are used like slaves. What they do have is a gun which gives them the power to have the mindset of: I have a gun so I can eat, I can rape, I can do whatever I want.
The militias use rape as a weapon of war. They use “Aids Brigades” to rape & spread HIV, attack the villages surrounding the mines, conduct gang rape of young girls, elderly women and even men. They force pregnant women to miscarry and to drink the blood from (their) wombs as well they kill whoever they feel like killing in an unimaginably horrible way.
Those who survived the horror are traumatized and leave their villages out of fear. In that way the militias can take over those villages. The worst part of it all is once those women released or escaped from that hell, it all becomes even more hopeless for them and they end up in another hell. Because of the stigma of rape, many married women find themselves abandoned by their husbands. If a woman is raped in the presence of her husband it’s a humiliation for the husband so he leaves his wife in order to keep his dignity. Their families, their communities, often no longer want them as well, forcing these women to spend their days at the edge of the village in even greater misery. The total blame falls on the shoulders of the victim making them victims twice. Victim of the militias and victim of stigmatization.
Where I want to go with this story is that victims of sexual violence have been largely forgotten after decades of what seems like a never-ending war. Women who lived through the Second Congo War are now struggling to stop its brutality and violence still overshadowing their lives. The conflict’s consequences spilt far beyond the borders of the country and seep through the walls of the victims’ homes with men returning from the war becoming far more violent in their home lives. This shows a shift from first rape being used as a weapon to an increase of domestic sexual abuse. About 48 women are raped in the DR of Congo every hour which makes Congo the “rape capital of the world”.
I want the world to be aware of the laxity with which the world looks at violence against women in Eastern Congo and by extension throughout the world. The media is full of violence against women. When we look back at the the case of Julie Van Espen, when the news hit our little country it shook every single one of us. Julie had a voice! The name of Julie Van Espen is forever engraved in my mind. Every time I hear it I get shivers all over my body as it makes me think back at how slow time was ticking before the news hit social media the moment her body was found. In Congo, every hour 48 women like Julie are raped, abused, killed. Women who were not given a name or a voice. Why isn’t every woman in Congo who is raped in front-page news?
When gynecologist Denis Mukwege received the Nobel Peace Prize the world briefly focused its attention on the situation of women in Eastern Congo. The International Day against Violence against Women is also a great initiative but unfortunately attention is only enforced one day a year.. other days it is remained far below the radar in Eastern Congo. Local and international policymakers will have to take their responsibility to stop the situation of insecurity. There has to come an end to the free rein of on the one hand, militias in terrorizing the population and on the other hand, the international companies using lucrative contracts through shadowy constructions.
But what gives hope is that Congolese women refuse to call their country “the rape capital of the world” and would rather name it “the world capital of sisterhood and solidarity” as they decided to take their future into their own hands by uniting forces and by changing the country from within. The Congolese women have a great influence in their communities yet they are almost entirely excluded from Congolese political life. A lot of this is down to the traditional role of women and a government that ignores gender equality. The need to remember this is so important! Unless we address the root cause of violence against women and girls, widespread sexual violence will continue to take place in times of war, and women will not be safe in their homes during times of peace.