Confronting epidemic of rape in an African conflict zone

November 19, 2007|By Michael Kleinman

The full scope of the violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo is hard to fathom. Gang-rapes by militias and government soldiers have been detailed in news reports. A United Nations official reported this year that 27,000 cases of sexual violence were reported in 2005 and 2006 in a single province, South Kivu.

Yet what has been missing in the recent media coverage is any sense of how to end - or even address - the horrific violence that has racked the DRC and other countries in the Great Lakes region of central Africa.

The International Violence Against Women Act, introduced recently by Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Richard G. Lugar, offers a historic opportunity to help women facing the daily threat of violence in the DRC and other countries. This landmark legislation calls for a comprehensive U.S. approach to combat violence against women and girls by increasing resources focused on the issue. It establishes a focus on reducing violence against women and girls as formal U.S. policy, and integrates programs to prevent and respond to it across other U.S. foreign assistance programs.

The increased resources and added focus on the problem of sexual violence are especially needed in the DRC, where rape has reached such epidemic proportions that some people regard it as a normal aspect of life. Recent research by CARE in the eastern part of the country found that 70 percent of survivors of sexual violence know other women who have undergone similar experiences and that 80 percent of them had been gang raped.

As with any parade of horrors, it's easier to see the problem in the abstract, a question of faceless numbers. Too often, we forget the real people who live with this fear and who face the devastating consequences of this violence.

My own sense of detachment disappeared one morning a year ago, in a sweltering hut in a small, impoverished village in eastern Congo. I listened as a small group of women dressed in their Sunday best described how being raped had changed their lives. Medical services were completely lacking, and there was no support available to help them address the shame and the ostracism they experienced within their families and communities. One woman tearfully described how she'd been forced from her home by her husband, unable to see her children. It's a moment I cannot stop thinking about.

The consequences of violence against women and girls go far beyond the survivors themselves; they affect entire communities. In places like eastern Congo, it is women who help families and communities survive, in part by producing an estimated 80 percent of household food. When these women are shunned and driven out of their communities, it contributes to a cycle of poverty and despair.

The government of the DRC has limited ability to meet the basic needs of its citizens - let alone help survivors of rape. Humanitarian agencies are doing all they can to fill the vacuum, supporting medical clinics and working with communities to help prevent such violence. For instance, CARE recently started a program to work with village-based women's associations, to help build and strengthen their skills to the point where they can advocate directly to local leaders, urging them to take stronger steps to address rape in their communities.

However, this work needs to be drastically scaled up to have an impact. This kind of local change will require consistent international attention and assistance from donors.

There's a long way to go, but ensuring that the International Violence Against Women Act passes is a positive step. It's worth all our efforts if, at some point in the not-too-distant future, a woman in eastern Congo can bury her shame and return home, her head held high.

Michael Kleinman, a Baltimore native, was the CARE regional advocacy advisor for East and Central Africa from 2006-2007. His e-mail is michaelbearkleinman@hotmail. com.

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