Paris, France: Despite an official end to hostilities in 2003, Eastern Congo has remained susceptible to proxy wars with continued fighting between rebel forces and government troops. Perpetrators of sexual violence on different sides of the conflict have been relentless and consequently, the arrival of victims is unceasing. On May 14 2015, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported that at least 100 women were brutally attacked in the South Kivu province of Congo, constituting yet another mass rape amidst more than a decade of sexual violence that has earned the region the moniker, “rape capital”.
According to the American Journal of Public Health, an estimated “1,100 women were raped on a daily basis” over the course of a year in Congo. This number only accounted for the year of 2006, when violence was at its highest. The attacks, often used as deliberate weapons of war, never stopped.
So what does the aftermath of such high levels of atrocities look like in emergency wards of hospitals? How does a nation recuperate from the social impact of a rampant rape culture? Ask Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist and rights activist who has been working around the clock, mostly confined to the compound of a hospital in Eastern Congo, treating scores of women on a daily basis, for the past 18 years. Many of the women who were victims of the latest incident are currently receiving treatment at Mukwege’s free hospital, Panzi, located in Bukavu, the capital city of South Kivu province, which is also the epicenter of conflict.
From irreparable lesions on their privates to entrails spilling out of their bodies, women in varying states of survival consider Panzi to be an oasis.
In a region critically lacking basic healthcare, Mukwege, a leading expert in reconstructive surgeries for rape victims, has saved the lives of more than 40,000 women over 16 years. A majority of them are victims of brutal gang rapes by soldiers and militias that started during the Second Congo War and have continued to the present day.
Mukwege was the recipient of the EU’s highest-level human rights award, the Sakharov Prize—it is one of the many accolades he has received during his time at Panzi.
Having treated women at different thresholds of psychological and physical suffering, many rushed in with their lifelines veering towards horizontal, Mukwege has been a prime witness to rape used as a weapon of war. In an interview for Warscapes, he spoke about his mission to “save the common humanity of his country.”
“It is a method of torture. It is a way to terrorize the population. When I see some of the injuries on the women and children, I realize this type of violence has little to do with sex and much more with power through a sort of terrorism,” said Mukwege.
According to a report published by the American Journal of Public Health, at least 400,000 women were raped in Congo between 2006 and 2007. Reports from local health centers in South Kivu Province claim that an estimated 40 women continue to experience sexual violence every day.
Mukwege has treated women who were raped as many as three times and has little doubt in his mind that it is the gravest “monstrosity of the century.” Every time a woman returns to Panzi with new wounds, it is a stark reminder that stability in Congo has succumbed to chronic periods of regression whilst perpetrators of crimes enjoy entrenched impunity.
The most difficult reality for us is when we help a woman give birth to a daughter, born as a result of rape, and then years later we have to treat the daughter who is also raped. These are very difficult and painful moments for the whole medical team,” explained Mukwege.
This year, on March 8, the UN commemorated 20 years of the Beijing Declaration, still deemed the most progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights. Even more importantly, this event also marked the beginning of a new platform for action called Beijing +20. With government leaders re-convening to renew commitments made towards gender equality, “preventing and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls” was a critical area of concern. However, most states have fallen woefully short of promises made at Beijing in 1995.
The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) reports that due to hollow domestic laws that have lagged in implementation and weak international conventions, “rape and other crimes of sexual violence continue to be committed on a massive scale,” particularly in conflict situations. The report cites Congo as a prime example of colossal and continued failure to protect.
The findings appear just as grim on a global scale. The No Ceilings Full Participation Report claims that sexual violence remains a “global epidemic” with no country untouched. The findings are based on data from the past 20 years from various humanitarian agencies, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization.
While the United Nations and humanitarian agencies implore leaders for “concrete commitments” towards attaining equality between men and women, such notions are a distant echo in Kivu, Ituru, and Katanga in Eastern Congo—the hot zones of fighting—where basic notions of safety have evaded an entire gender and across generations.
In a largely agrarian society, Congolese women contribute 80 percent of the food production. But in a context where the UN deemed being a woman “was more dangerous than being a soldier,” women and adolescent girls who constitute 73 percent of the labour force, are not safe in their homes or out in the fields. They are targeted in their communities by militias and state soldiers, but also by men in their domestic environments and within their households.
For most Congolese women, reporting rape is unthinkable. Aside from social stigmatization of victims, going to a police station could put them at greater danger. With the basic tenets of citizen protection effectively absent in Congo’s security forces, perpetual violence against women has eroded whole communities, with no effective social or legal remedies.
Mukwege insists that the domestic laws are present. They are simply not used. Many of the perpetrators occupy high-ranking positions in the government and armed forces. Not bringing them to justice has borne the effect of institutionalizing rape as a common occurrence.
Most research on sexual violence in Congo reveals that rape has been rampant even during times of stability. In a report conducted by South Africa based Sonke Gender Justice Network in Kivu province, more than 30 percent of Congolese men admitted to committing sexual assault and three-fourths believed that women who dressed provocatively were “asking for it.”
Those like Mukwege believe that ignorance and desensitization have created a deep divide between the genders.
“The concept of equality begins in children’s minds with the very first contact with their social environments. We usually tell girls to dress a certain way and instill fear in them that if they don’t, they might be attacked. But we don’t tell boys about how to behave and consequences of bad behavior,” he pointed out.
Education and awareness he believes, would need to begin at home and during the formative years, but the perception of accountability begins with justice at all levels.
“I believe that we cannot have a mentality or attitude change concerning women if justice is not exercised, and when we do not take care of their needs, whether medical, social, or legal,” said Mukwege.
It is this dearth of medical infrastructure and collective social responsibility for the safety of women and lack of rule of law that compelled Mukwege to crusade for change on multiple levels. An obstetrician by training, he entered the medical profession with the desire to “aid the formation of life.” But witnessing his first gang-rape victim made him realize that there were existing lives that needed to be saved and sustained.
Alongside his medical work, he has campaigned for Congolese women’s rights at national and international levels. He believes change does not simply meant protecting the women.
“No man would want to see his wife or mother or daughter raped. So it’s a common worry. But what I try to tell them is “this enclosure you create around your sister, wife, and daughter—create this fence around all women in general.”
Movements geared towards educating men about sexual violence have emerged in recent years in Congo. A national conference took place in 2014 where leaders from different provinces gathered to discuss violence against women that has been endemic in their communities. Along with psycho-social support for victims of rape, Mukwege advocates help for those who left the armed forces and re-integrating them into their communities.
Demobilization is a psychological process that requires long-term counseling.
“It is obvious that when a young boy is recruited and learns to rape, kill, and destroy women and grows up with this reality, we need to integrate him. Shedding the uniform does not mean that this ingrained mentality has changed,” said Mukwege.
Peace in Congo, Mukwege contends, will require rehabilitating the men and reinforcing the voices of women. He has organized groups where men and boys discuss the violence that has pervaded their societies and minds while women gather to demand justice and reparations.
“If you destroy wombs, there will be no children and no future.”
Therefore, for Mukwege, it is simply a matter of “saving the common humanity” of Congo.
This article first appeared in Warscapes, on 20 May 2015.
Preethi Nallu is Associate Editor for Warscapes magazine. She is a multimedia journalist and writer, originally from Hyderabad, India. Born in Iran, raised in India, she spent her university years at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing degrees in journalism and political science. Since graduating, she has lived and worked in Southeast Asia, Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Currently based in Rome, she combines text, visual and audio formats to produce in-depth narratives for mainstream media and UN agencies. Twitter @Preethi_Nallu