When a people find themselves in a predicament where they are oppressed and deprived of their rights, external help comes to them sometimes, from other states in the world. Sometimes, this help comes in the form of intervention using military force, although technically forbidden by law. It legitimizes itself through the epithet of “Responsibility to Protect”, or R2P. Sometimes, this help comes in the form of monetary assistance and rehabilitation. But sometimes, there is no help at all.
The Responsibility to Protect has evolved as an important doctrine of sorts in contemporary international relations. The principle, endorsed in 2005 during the UN World Summit, essentially calls on the international community to use all “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means … to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” This responsibility to protect is proactive and continuous. Military force cannot be used except as a last resort, after all other peaceful options have been tried, and have failed.
Despite such a norm being in place, strangely, the world has been stunningly silent in questioning the non-invocation of the doctrine to handle the situation in DRCongo. The international community has the same responsibility to protect the people of DRCongo- over 6 million DRCongolese civilians have died, and statistics reveal that as many as half of the death toll comprise children. It has been a whole 15 years since this horrific scheme of events began. Over 400,000 women have been raped. As mentioned by the American Journal of Public Health, on an average, 48 women are raped per hour in DRCongo, and the toll of women who were victims of sexual violence in 2007, toll up to about 4,00,000. Women are afraid to speak up, to speak out and to be heard. Elections are held from time to time, but women are afraid to participate for fear of being subjected to horrors for their campaigns of denouncing the horrific sexual violence that is being perpetrated by and large in the region.
DRCongo is in shambles. Women wear scars of sexual violence- the worst weapon of war. The people of DRCongo still find themselves picking the pieces of their broken lives. The story of the lives of these people would shock anyone’s conscience. The absence of justice and attention is nothing short of shocking. The world was completely deaf to the pleas of the people in DRCongo. Unarmed ordinary people were dying. Women were raped. The country’s backbone was shattered. But the world was quiet. Deathly quiet.
Is this because the world is too apathetic to the situation? Or is this because the world has decided to remain indifferent?
Today, DRCongo stands in a precarious condition- where the crisis has gone far beyond the threshold of a turnaround. The situation has spiralled out of control. The people of DRCongo are paying the price for the inertia that the world wielded in its conduct towards the country.
In 2006, the United States passed the Public Law 109-456 a legislation seeking to address the situation in DRCongo. But five years have passed, and implementation is far from materializing. Five years of inertia has cost DRCongo dearly. The state is abundantly rich in mineral resources. Better known to the world as conflict minerals, these resources are mined by DRCongolese civilians, who often work with their bare hands. The monetary return for them is frugal, though the plundering corporations and governments ramble about in wealth. The sword of rape and death hang above the heads of the ordinary DRCongolese civilian, while the world around them uses laptops and cell phones fashioned out of industries that use these conflict minerals.
DRCongo’s present state of instability easily benefits those who exploit its wealth. Documentation and statistical records maintained by the United Nations suggests the massive exploitation of DRCongo’s mineral wealth by Rwanda, Uganda, various rebel groups and private actors. Specifically, in its 2001 Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources, its 2006 Resolution 1653 and 2008 Final Report of the Group of Experts, the United Nations has explained the fact that Rwanda’s economic power in the region has a lot to do with the trade in illicit minerals out of DRCongo.
To DRCongo, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR and ICESCR, the Geneva Conventions and all of International Humanitarian Law, truly, make no difference and do not matter at all. There is precious little that a legal document could serve for the people, when it is devoid of any form of political will or military power backing it up. What use is empty rhetoric when implementation is severely lacking?
Rehabilitating the destroyed state is going to take a lot, easily. DRCongo is fragile, and cannot be strengthened unless it can give its people their basic needs and protection. This cannot take place until DRCongo has a unified army that remains confined to the rubric of discipline, and remains subjugated to a civilian rule. The army must necessarily be comprised of individuals who conform to a value system, and must necessarily be rid of those who are guilty of human rights abuses. There should be a military tribunal that would mandate the performance of duties on part of the army, and would keep the army confined within the borders of decency and good conduct.
With this, DRCongo could have a proper government in place, one that would proactively engage in the upkeep of its people by ensuring them their dues, in keeping with international standards. On a larger scale, DRCongo must compulsorily indulge in regional diplomacy with all stakeholders to usher in peace. Rwanda must be pressurized for the return of its refugees, and offer political space for the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. DRCongolese mineral wealth must rightfully benefit the people in DRCongo, and all policy must look towards this direction. It doesn’t help that the minerals benefit only corporations and governments outside, for the present, so it is necessary that those who loot these resources need to be made accountable on all fronts.
Non-action in DRCongo has not been because of a lack of warning, or a lack of information, or a lack of necessary resources. Non-action, instead, has come to be owing to the strategic, considerations coloured by political and economic policies of those that had plenty to gain out of exploiting the state’s mineral wealth. With the cold shoulder from the rest of the world, it became increasingly easy to capitalize on the confluence of mineral wealth and political repression. It is unfortunate that the strategic interests of the world precede action in pursuit of humanitarian considerations.
By ignoring this responsibility to protect, this obligation on our part, this duty we owe to our counterparts in the DRCongo, we have not just violated an international norm. We are guilty of having been complicit in the worst crime against humanity. Our silence and inert stance in the sidelines watching the Rape of DRCongo has been the worst crime against our own conscience.
In the chaotic upshot of the Rwandan civil war in 1994, refugees fled to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). A massive approximation of 100,000 of the Interahamwe, a militia partially responsible for the Rwandan genocide, crossed the border to avoid prosecution for their crimes against humanity. Thousands of women who have been raped and mutilated in the DRC can attest that the momentum to kill and maim is still in full swing despite a peace agreement signed in 2003.
Sexual violence in Congo goes back to the beginnings of the conflict itself, having started out in 1998. Women have had to suffer the horrors of gang rapes, torture, sexual slavery, sexual abuse and harassment. Women were targeted as rape was adopted as the preferred weapon to exercise control. Armed groups began functioning like organized crime cartels and demanded control through the use of force, for mineral deposits in Congo.
The outside world decided to boycott the trade in these “conflict minerals” as they came to be known. But there wasn’t much of use for what the women suffered, and to a large extent still do. These offences themselves went largely unchecked and unnoticed. The war provided an easy climate for the offence to take place. Congolese men have been killed because they refused to indulge in rape of their sisters, daughters and mothers.
Statistics as mentioned by the American Journal of Public Health note that on an average 48 women are raped per hour in DR Congo. In 2007, more than 400,000 are reported to have suffered sexual violence. According to a new United Nations report (July 2011), which urges the Government to bring the perpetrators to justice, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Mayi Mayi Sheka, “systematically attacked civilians” in 13 villages in Walikale territory in North Kivu province between 30 July and 2 August 2010, and “looted most of these villages, raped hundreds of civilians, mostly women, but also men and children, and abducted more than a hundred people who were subjected to forced labour.”
Conflict, fear, stigma, poverty and ignorance of the 2006 law on sexual violence prevent women from speaking up. Elections are held from time to time, but women are afraid to participate for fear of being subjected to horrors for their campaigns of denouncing the horrific sexual violence that is being perpetrated by and large in the region.
War, conflict and all kinds of armed battle have horrible impacts. Society is torn apart, often having to be rebuilt from the grassroots. People find themselves crushed by injury, their means of livelihood being thwarted by an exchange of fire and their lives itself, smashed to smithereens with them left to pick up the pieces. But of the lot, women are known to be the worst sufferers of conflict. A very pertinent question that this statement throws up, is, quite simply, ‘Why?’.
The answer is in the very nature of society. World over, women are the greater part of the segments of society upon whom development hinges. They are, and can doubtless be construed the very backbone of a society- a woman is what it takes to keep a family together, a woman is what it takes to feed a family of ten with frugal means, while still ensuring that no one goes to bed suffering in abject hunger, a woman is what it takes to keep society going.
While this is true, it is also sad that women are forced to flee from the scene of conflicts. With most of the men folk taking to the armed forefronts, women find themselves being made the sole breadwinner of their families. Coupled with the economic considerations, there is always the looming threat of sexual violence. Oftentimes, the bodies of women become the battleground, as combatants and non-combatants exploit women sexually.
Why is sexual violence so common on every warfront? Why are women the easiest targets? The fact is that rape is cheap, easy and extremely effective. Armed groups, combatants and non-combatants alike use rape as a means to terrorize and control women and communities. Subjecting women to sexual violence earns the woman the indelible mark of stigmatization that society throws on them. Shrouded with humiliation, families then wind up turning these women out of their homes, and when women are spurned the backbone of a societal structure is broken. Men don’t want to marry women subject to sexual violence. Families don’t want to have them around anymore- either the stigma is too much to bear, or the fact that these women burden them since they can’t be married off (especially true in societies where marriages bring in bride prices). Sexual violence is calculated, brutal and absolutely bereft of humanity. Using sexual violence as a modus operandi in warfare is intricately woven with the hegemonic desire for power. Soldiers thirst to drive fear and strive to humiliate and punish women and their communities, in the hope that by doing so, they would invariably break down society entirely. Sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations is a preferred method that is used to reinforce gendered and political hierarchies.
Considering this, it is absolutely imperative that women be made an integral part of the process of preventing conflicts, and part of the peace-building and peace-keeping roles. Although this would contribute heavily towards protecting women, the ground reality is that the inclusion of women in pre and post conflict measures has been ignored largely. A UNSC Resolution (Res 1325 in 2000) worked to urge all the member states to “ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict”. Aside of reflecting the evident lack of the involvement of women in dealing with conflict, the resolution also showed signs of being a proactive initiation of the process. However, the situation a decade since shows no signs of improvement, or abatement. Consequently, a recent endeavour was made by the Security Council, with a host of deliberations that discussed the means that may be deployed to effectively implement Resolution 1325.
The frugal to non-implementation of the resolution boils down to the question of policy. The involvement of women in the process of peace-building and peace-keeping, as also in the active political trajectory of a state is largely up to the state itself, and its policies vis-a-vis women. In most parts of the world, women find themselves inadequately equipped and inadequately represented. Furthermore, in several post conflict regions, women find themselves in a situation of fear, and in a situation where they are placed as sole breadwinners, and thinking of participation in the political process is far too distant a proposition. Where the fear factor goes, most women believe that participation in a vociferous political framework might bring them more harm. This is especially true in the context of places DR Congo. When women are forced to be sole breadwinners by circumstance, they are obligated to put their families first. This often makes them want to reach out to things that would benefit their families more than anything else. Consequently, these women wind up either voting for leaders who offer them sops and freebies but no future plans of empowerment, or wind up staying outside the political framework in search of a means of livelihood that could provide for their families.
Sexual violence is unfortunately a prominent feature of the conflict in DR Congo, dating back to its beginning in 1998. During the more than 10 years of conflict in Africa’s third largest country, women have suffered immeasurable horrors: gang rapes, torture, sexual slavery, sexual abuse and harassment. These practices were adopted by armed groups as their preferred weapon.
Women in War Zones (WiWZ) is an organization that started from its initial stages as a documentary movie. The movie, made by Scott Blanding, his sister Melanie Blanding and his best friend, Brad La Briola, dives intimately into the lives of two women in DR Congo, Helene Wamuzila and Bijoux Mateso, and recounts the horrific experiences they faced. As rape victims and survivors of sexual violence, Helene and Bijoux recounted their story through the movie, which also traced their stay at the Panzi Hospital, in DR Congo, in the hope of treating their fistulas – the painful aftermath of sexual violence.
In 1999, when Helene was only 14, Helene was raped at a distance of only 5 kilometres away from her home when she was out getting food. She was seized by a group of men belonging to the rebel group Mai Mai, and was attacked brutally with bayonets. After her first attack, Helene’s extended family disowned her, since they believed that she would be of no use to them anymore since no man would want to marry her after this type of attack. The generic belief in Congo is that girls who attacked want to be raped, and that whatever happens is the fault of the woman who is raped. If a woman is not married in Congo, then her family will not receive a bride price for her which means she cannot contribute any money for the family which makes her worthless. For a woman in Congo marriage is everything- donning the role of the wife and mother is the only role available for Congolese women. If they don’t have the opportunity to take up these roles, owing to rape and sexual assault, they are seen as worthless. Helene lay in her bed for 7 months due to her injuries. Slowly over time she began to crawl and eventually walk with a cane. One day a person from UNICEF knocked on her door and told her that her injuries were so great she would have to go to Panzi Hospital, so she was transported there.
After being at the Panzi Hospital for some time and undergoing several surgeries, Helene was sent home to recover. Helene was hesitant to leave since the war was still going on in her village. However, the doctors made her return. When she was back home, Helene’s village came under attack by Interahamwe and RCD (Rally for Congolese Democracy) and she was attacked again by men from these groups and eventually found her way back to Panzi. Helene suffered for 8 years and received 8 operations in an attempt to heal her fistula that was caused by her attacks. After Helene was given permission to leave the hospital she went back home with her family. Two years later she became ill and passed away. She never had the chance to fulfil her dreams as her life was plagued with injury.
Bijoux, at 13, was attacked by a group of three Mai Mai soldiers while on her way to her grandmother’s house. After coming to Panzi, she underwent three surgeries before being healed, and has since returned home to live with her mom and relatives. She now faces the typical life, responsibilities, and limited opportunities of a pretty young woman living in a poor Congolese family.
What Helene and Bijoux went through is more or less a similar phenomenon for most other women in DR Congo. Rape, Sexual Violence and a deprivation of a livelihood, coupled with social stigmatization, has been a heady cocktail, a terrible mix that sent the lives of women in DR Congo spiralling downwards. WiWZ functions as a channel, a conduit, that hopes to tell the world of the events in these women’s lives, and also hopes to establish a means for the reconstruction of their lives, and to empower these women through the tool of education.
On behalf of the men and women who make up Women in War Zones, I’d like to wish our friends, our supporters, and the beautiful women we employ our talents for a very Happy International Women’s Day. Today is a perfect opportunity to become an advocate for the women and girls we support in Democratic Republic of the Congo. If you need some ideas, check out the 5 Steps page on our website. Cheers and thank you to you all!Read More
In an explosive article over at the Daily Beast, American service woman Shoshana Johnson criticizes the U.S. military ban on female soldiers fighting on the front lines. Johnson made national news in 2003 when she became the first black female POW in American history during the war in Iraq. As the topic of women fighting in combat takes the stage in Republican national debates, Johnson and her article strike down some of the reasons why keeping women out of combat roles are unfounded.
Rape emerges as the number one go-to argument for keeping our women in uniform off the front lines.
“[R]ape is a crime, not a justification,” Johnson writes. “Females ranging in age from 18 months to 70 years old have experienced the traumatic criminal act of rape, and they weren’t in the middle of a war. So why do we jump to the idea of rape when we discuss women and the military?”
Why indeed. The second civil war in Democratic Republic of the Congo ended back in July 2003, when the transitional government took power. Unfortunately, as news agency accounts, United Nations studies, and members of our own organization Women in War Zones know from their work with local women in DRC, the violence against civilians, especially women, continues.
Johnson herself was not sexually assaulted during her captivity, but says this notion of rape as a reason to keep women out of combat roles should serve as a means to inform and sensitize Americans, military or otherwise, about the far-reaching effect rape has on a society.
She writes: “Here’s an idea: Why don’t we educate men, to make it clear that rape—since we are all aware that it is a crime—is also an act of betrayal, one that disgraces the uniform, the military, and society.”
It is a powerful suggestion. I would argue that more individuals, male and female, see rape as an attack on one person. The opposite is true – when a person is raped, it is an act of betrayal, as Johnson explains, on a larger scale. It breeds distrust in a community, and when nothing is done to bring the rapist or rapists to justice, it devalues the justice system.
The tide turns when a community makes the decision to unite against an act or rule that is a disgrace to its people. We saw this during the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Rights Movement. When the activists of these movements realized that the system that was supposed to protect them and their freedoms was instead degrading them and their communities, they brought the issue to light in the form of protests and the creation of activist groups. They also turned to religious organizations, which allowed their causes to gain more momentum. Religion is the foundation of billions of lives around the world, and when the idea that God condemns discrimination, degradation, and the wide-spread rape of a community begins to take root in the hearts of a congregation, very little can be done to upend that.
The name of the game is education. Let’s use this week, this month, this year, this lifetime to educate our friends and communities on the disgrace rape brings upon us all. For the survivors of rape in Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States military, and around the world, rape is a crime.
Kudos to Shoshana Johnson for bringing this issue to the front line of news.
It took twelve years for rape to be defined as a weapon in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Since 1996, the country has been torn apart by two civil wars, and all the while, rape has been used to intimidate and traumatize entire communities. As I mentioned last week, 48 women are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This data was released to the public in June 2011, though the evidence of systematic rape at the hands of militias and insurgent groups has always existed. By the time the United Nations formally recognized rape as a weapon in 2008, there was no question that a large-scale intervention to disarm it was needed.
As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8th, and rape continues to become more and more commonplace in DRC, and the American people become more and more desensitized it and the suffering of Congolese women, I’m reminded of Frederick Douglass and his landmark speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
On July 5th, 1852, Douglass, an escaped slave, was invited to speak at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass seized the opportunity to raise awareness of the ongoing cruelties against slaves to a room full of captivated American, and delivered one of his sternest messages. “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!” he told his audience. “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.”
Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 and miraculously escaped from it in 1838, but not before seeing his family and his own body and spirit brutalized by the systematic abuse of black slaves in the American South. He knew the irony of being an escaped slave, the scars of oppression still fresh on his back, living and breathing on the day of America’s independence. He was not born with the same freedoms as the other celebrants who sat in the audience before him. Most if not all of them had read his work, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. They knew the life he had narrowly escaped from, therefore they knew the horrors to which slave owners and overseers were subjecting their slaves. If they didn’t see the irony in asking a slave to give a speech on Independence Day before, Douglass angrily illustrated it to them now.
“I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view,” he proclaimed. “Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!”
For the duration of his time at the podium, Douglass prepared to paint a bleak picture of his country. Then, as the speech drew to a close, he suddenly put on the breaks.
“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery…[T]he doom of slavery is certain.”
He continued to say: “Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference.”
It is a very relevant argument today. As we surround ourselves with Facebook and newspapers and CNN, it is impossible to escape the world that exists miles and miles away. We cannot plead ignorance when it comes to human rights abuses. Frederick Douglass took his fellow Americans to task on that on July 5th, 1852.
Today, I will take my fellow Americans to task on another matter of human rights. As I sit here, I have electricity, a MacBook Air, a house with locking doors and windows, a police department that is a phone call away if the need arises, and my independence. In short, I do not have to report to anyone, male or female, to make decisions. Nor do I have to fear the immediate threat of oppression or rape. I can’t say the same for my ladies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
International Women’s Day is a celebration of what it means to be a woman, but it should also be a call to action. You and I have the freedom to share information, by words, by electronic communication, by freedom of the press. Women in the West don’t endure the same oppression women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo do. That fact should not be lost on any occasion, but highlighted at every available opportunity. If a survivor of state-sanctioned abuse could rise from his misery and still see hope for the future, it is possible for the celebrants of International Women’s Day to unite and organize a call to action for the survivors of the weapon of rape in DRC.
On March 8th, 2012, remind the women in your life how lucky they are to be Americans, and insist that they take action to remind the rest of the world that rape is still a weapon being used against innocent women and girls in Democratic Republic of the Congo.
For tips and helpful hints, check out the Join the Movement page at the Women in War Zones website.
You can also make a donation to Women in War Zones here.
Marta RusekRead More
Early March is an important time of year for women in Bukavu and all throughout the DRC. The 8th of the month marks International Women’s Day and you can feel the energy building all throughout the city. Many organizations have their own traditions for the annual celebration, and as Women in War Zones continues to grow, we also continue to build on our own celebration.
Throughout history, Women’s Day has been celebrated throughout different cultures in a multiplicity of ways. It has been used as a form of unity and peace, as a symbol of power and for women to assert their independence, gain political respect. It has even been used as a avenue for civil disobedience and a day to protest against inequality. In the DRC, it is no different. Every year, the women of Congo have the chance to march throughout the center of the city to support equality for women and represent a force that needs to be respected and acknowledged. This is the one day of year women can celebrate what it means to be a woman. Despite all of the different organizations that focus on different needs for women and human rights in Congo, they all come together on one day a year to share in their goals of fighting for the rights of humanity. On March 8th, people all over the world and within the Congolese community will come together to unify in their effort to empower Congolese women and all women internationally.
In the center of Bukavu, starting at the cathedral, people will march along the main road of town. It is a rare sight to see hundreds on women walking through the center of Bukavu in the DRC. It will serve as a symbol of pride and empowerment for the community. Although Women in War Zones is still a young organization, we are so excited and proud to be participating in the march in Bukavu this year. However, for our participants to be able to march with pride for Women in War Zones and themselves, we have to purchase a uniform fabric to represent our organization. Each year, all of the organization in Bukavu wear a different fabric to represent the unity of the women and employees in their program. It is a beautiful sight to see all of the different colors of the Congolese fabrics. Having all of your participants in the same pattern creates a sense of unity amongst the women. It is a way for onlookers to point out different organizations marching along.
Fabric may not seem like a very important aspect of the march. You might be thinking, its only clothing and what is really important is meaning behind International Women’s Day. But, the fabric is a very significant part of the tradition. Not only does it unify organizations, but many women have torn, worn in, and old clothing. When everyone is dressed the same, you can only see a force of women. On this day, their collective identity is what matters. On this day, it doesn’t matter that you are rich or poor, that your clothes are nice or worn. What matters is that you show up!
Please help us to support the women of the Wamu Center and allow them the same privaledge as all the other women marching in the parade. We need your help to give the gift of fabric to our women, so they can walk along their sisters with their heads held high, to show DRC and the world what it means to be a proud, strong, Congolese woman. Help us to empower the women of Women in War Zones with this beautiful gift by donating at www.womeninwarzones.org
Marie J. Targonski-O’BrienRead More
Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 180 million Valentines were sent on or around February 14th. And that’s not including the millions of cards children exchanged with their classmates in school.
Cards aren’t typically seen in a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not on Valentine’s Day, nor any other day of the year.
Instead, there are broken hearts.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has earned the nickname “the Rape Capital of the World” from the United Nations, on account of the hundreds of thousands of women who have been sexually assaulted there for over a decade. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in June 2011 claimed that based on available data, 48 women are raped every hour in the DRC, or 1,152 women per day.
That’s 419,328 survivors per year. And that doesn’t count the unreported cases, for which there are probably many.
These women do not receive a Valentine’s Day card. They not get roses delivered to their front door, nor do they get to savor the sweet taste of chocolate candy from a heart-shaped box. They wake up to uncertainty, and go to sleep with it, too. When they are raped, they receive the stigmatization that comes with it, and are shunned by their husbands. The very husbands for whom they brave the uncertainties of the outside world for, to fetch water or find food, easily cast their loved ones away in the face of prejudice.
There are no cards for a woman who has survived a horrific assault on her body and mind. There are no teddy bears or balloons proclaiming “Get Well Soon.” Sometimes she reports her ordeal to the police, sometimes she can’t. Sometimes her attacker is brought to justice. Sometimes he, or they, are not.
A woman who lives beyond her attack is a survivor; the word “victim” only adds to the degradation her rapists inflicted upon her in the first place. As a survivor, she can help the many women who came before and the many yet to come.
The presence of a survivor implies the presence of observers. Observers exist to take in information, and based on their reaction to that information, may turn into activists, advocates, or simply choose to remain passive.
On a holiday like Valentine’s Day, where we invest millions of dollars as Americans into cards, flowers, and candy, it would behoove us to cease being observers and start using this day of affection as a reason to share our love and compassion with the women and girls of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After the cards to loved ones have been posted, send a card to your Congressman or Senator insisting that the conflict has not been resolved, and the American government must raise its objection to the systematic rape of women and girls in DRC. Organize events in your church, synagogue, or mosque that raise money and awareness. High school and college students can publicize their outrage in campus groups, public debates, school news programs, radio shows, or annual benefits that raise proceeds. Last but not least, there are organizations like this one.
Women in War Zones was founded to use media and the arts to give faces to the survivors of the conflict. The organization has also made the process of getting involved simple yet effective. The Five Steps allow observers to become activists and advocates immediately. One could even tailor the Five Steps into a Valentine’s Day tradition. Give five cards, boxes of candy, or roses to your five favorite people. With those cards, candy, or roses, include a note that highlights your passion for helping women and girls in DRC, and express your hope that the receiver of your message will share it with five of their friends.
It’s an act of love.
Every Monday, the WamuWomen Committee meets to talk about various issues within the community. The committee is comprised of ten women who participate in the programs offered at Wamu. These ten women serve as representatives for all the women and girls who come to The Wamu Center. The topics discussed at meetings can range from current events in the community, sharing the needs and concerns of the women, to training sessions on various subjects, those being practical or academic. Currently, we are working with the women on doing a series of discussions on rights, Monday’s topic being, human rights.
The conversation began with a simple, or maybe not to simple, question: What are human rights? The room fell silent. My eyes traced over each woman sitting in the circle of chairs. Each pair of eyes darted down toward the floor and out the window, hands twiddled with the papers and pens that sat in their lap. We sat awaiting a reply. In the silence a pair of giggles slipped out from two of the women. “There is no right or wrong answer”, the translator repeated in Swahili. “Can you repeat the question?”, Mama Zawadi asked. After repeating the question and pulling some teeth, the group slowly began sharing their thoughts. If
there’s something, Congolese women are not used to, is people asking for their opinion, especially when it comes to topics like human rights.
Over the following two hours, the group erupted into discussion as we moved down a list of designated human rights. Here we are, talking to a group of women about their rights as human beings. It became obvious no one had ever told them, things like, you have a right to life, equality, and a fair trial. A question is posed to the group, “Human rights are free and equal, what does it mean to be equal?”
Mama Zawadi’s eyes get big and and she leans forward, pointing toward Dominique and I. She’s laughing out loud as she speaks. I don’t need to know Swahili to understand what she is saying. Murhula translates anyway, “She says Westerners are not equal to Congolese.” Why do I feel like he has phrased this delicately? “Yes, Mama Zawadi, superficially we are different, but we are all humans with skin, bones, and air in our lungs. According to that standard we all have human rights regardless of race, religion, color, origin or sex. She agrees that this is true.
As we move down the list, the women begin to react more. We come to the right to life. A woman speaks out, “What we have here in Congo, cannot be called life. While we are breathing, our neighbors are being killed.” She goes on, “We want to call government, but we do not have government. The government knows the rebels who murder our families and burn our homes. The government does not do anything to the rebels for what they do. No one is held responsible. No one is punished for what they do to us.”
“So, you are saying, life is more than just basic survival?”
“We have pain every day and no one pays attention. No one stops it. We have never seen liberty.”
“If people do not respect your rights, does that mean you do not have them?”
“Yes, we do, but the government does not play its role to respect those rights.
Mama Bushnyuha is probably in her late twenties. She does not excel in English classes, most likely due to a lack of confidence, but she is always smiling to herself. I rarely hear her speak out, but she begins talking quickly and authoritatively. She is pointing her finger towards the ground. For several minutes this goes until I see tears forming in her eyes and her voice cracks just slightly. She stops speaking, folding her arms, falling back into a slump in her chair.
Mama Bushnyuha, tells a story. She describes a family that is visited by rebel soldiers, although she didn’t specify, I can tell she is talking about her family. The rebels charge into their home and order the father to have sex with the daughters, when he refuses they order the sons to have sex with the daughters, when they refuse, still they order the sons to have sex with the mothers. Finally, the rebels open fire. She explains, “We do not receive that respect here. They do not respect our rights. The UN does not protect us.”
Each woman in this group knows a story like this.
We move on to Slavery. The women explain slavery is when a soldier obliges you to do things you do not want to. The question is posed: How do you make sure people respect your right to freedom?
“We are put in slavery by our husbands”, Mama Zawadi says half smiling.
“How do you make sure your husband respects your freedom?”, Dominique responds.
“I can tell my husband I want to go to The Wamu Center, but he can still say no.”
“How do you maintain your freedom in your own home?”, Dominique repeats.
The women all start chattering. “A family should be birthed from love, but after the children are born, the husband leaves you to take care of them, then he comes home and demands food.” The women are partly joking, but the conversation turns serious quickly. “If we don’t do what he says, then he will beat us and kick us out of the house with the children. If you have children it is better to remain enslaved. We have to. I may know what is right. I may know my husband shouldn’t beat me, but when I tell him this, he will kick me out of the house and then I will have nothing.”
Another woman, Natalie, our librarian, chimes in, “It is not a person who enslaves us. It is our culture that maintains our slavery.” I’m shocked by her response. “Our culture does not allow you to choose, but men know, when women are educated we will protest their will.”
Natalie continues, “When a mother isa slave, the children will also be slaves, because their mother never had the opportunity to teach the children about their rights. As mothers, we must understand our rights, so we can teach our children to understand their rights.” Natalie’s understanding of the relationship between her culture, education, the cycle of poverty and oppression makes my jaw drop. Clearly, this girl is brilliant.
In the beginning of our discussion, the women all stared unknowingly around the room when asked, “What are human rights?”, but as they spoke, what they expressed suggested the deep understanding they had of just the opposite. Their experiences and reactions say they know exactly what human rights are, more so than most people who learn about them in a classroom. These women have never had the priveledge of a government or community reassuring them, yes, what is happening to you is wrong and your instincts are correct. Your and anger and hurt is justified.
However, it is through a dialougue on their rights, they can confirm their beliefs. Through a discussion, they realize, I knew more than I thought I did. Despite, a society that tears at their will to survive, these activities do just the opposite.
I know the problems in the DRC are much larger than any of the individuals that are sitting in this room. They are much more complex than what our discussion has even begun to scrape over. I also realize I cannot offer solutions to fix all of the problems here, but luckily, I can offer a place to come and think. A place to feel some kind of comfort through the support of a community. Maybe it is these discussions that are the beginning of a bigger solution, not one that will happen today, tomorrow, or the next day, but one that will empower and educate a population on what the treatment deserve as human beings.
Marie J. Targonski-O’BrienRead More