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Women Making Change, in the Worst Place in the World to Be a Woman

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Superlatives fail when you set out to describe conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC), formerly known as Zaire. The New York Times calls the war that is raging there now “the deadliest conflict since World War II.” The UN has deployed its largest peacekeeping force ever, 17,000 troops and personnel. Still, violence claimed some 5,400,000 lives in the last ten years—more than in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan’s Darfur combined, and close to the annual rate for the twenty worst years of colonial occupation, when the population was reduced by half. Here, as wherever war rages, poverty and disease add to the ghastly toll.


Most of the victims, and most of the hideously injured survivors, are women. Yet those survivors, and their allies within and outside the DRC, may be the bravest women on Mother Earth.


The Times reported that in some villages as many as 90 percent of women have been raped. Babies and old women are not exempt. Christine Schuler Deschryver, DRC activist, calls it “sexual terrorism.”


On July 30, 2007, Yakin Erturk, special rapporteur on violence against women for the United Nations Human Rights Council, formally documented the extreme and pervasive sexual violence and the absence of any functioning law or justice. According to Ertuk, “Women are gang raped, often in front of their families and communities. In numerous cases, men are forced at gunpoint to rape their own daughters, mothers, or sisters.”


Men in the villages are usually unarmed and unable to defend the women. They commonly react to their shame by abandoning the partners who survive. Many raped women are held as slaves by the marauding gangs, and some have been forced to eat the flesh of their murdered children.

A Global—and Most Uncivil—War
It’s natural to recoil from even the account of such atrocities. Simplistic labels like “ethnic” or “tribal” violence help to keep them at a distance. But what the Times calls “a civil war” is in fact a global battleground. The bands of rebels who tear through villages and leave them raped and bleeding come from at least six other African nations. And the resources that could be used to heal the wounds flow out of the country to multinational corporations, with the connivance of government authorities who pocket their cut.


The self-styled civilized nations of the world profit from the rape of the Congo. The uranium in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from the DRC. Your cell phone and the computer you are reading this on contain coltan, one of many mineral resources that are smuggled and “legally” exported from the Congo in vast quantities every year, with no benefit to the Congolese people. The UN has accused all the nations involved in the conflict of using the war as a cover for this looting. A small cluster of governments, corporations, and civil and military elites control the outflow of coltan, gold, cobalt, tin, copper, diamonds, and other exports—all of them steeped in blood.




Hope for Justine
Last year Mrs. Antoinette Sassou N’Guesso, first lady of the DRC, chaired the organization that birthed this initiative, the African First Ladies’ Peace Mission. We’re eager to watch these women wield their power.


For a network of women on several continents, however, Justine Masika Bihamba is the real first lady. Justine has worked in the DRC since 1990 to promote peace and human rights, prevent sexual violence, and support rural women and refugees. She organizes workshops and listening centers in local communities, grants rotating microcredit, and provides psychosocial, medical, and legal support. The first objective of the NGO she founded and heads, Synergie des femmes pour les victimes des violences sexuelles, SFVS (synergy of the women for the victims of sexual violence), is to help victims of sexual violence regain their joy in living. Its vision is a society in which women claim their human dignity.


Last year, Justine was away when six men broke into her house with the intent of killing her. Instead, they assaulted her daughters, raping one with a knife. Since then the girls have been in hiding. The organization Hope for Justine was founded by women who met her at an International Women’s Rights institute in Toronto last summer and were inspired by her determination. Its goals are to promote awareness of conditions in the DRC and to bring her daughters to safety in Canada.


In the face of continuing threats, Justine herself refuses to abandon her work, though she will be in the US for a brief visit in late March. In December, a Canadian high court denied visas to the two girls.


Growing Awareness


Peace X Peace member Pammy O’Leary was the only American at that Toronto conference. She and her Canadian friend Saje both say they were compelled to support Justine from the moment they first heard her story. Pammy put me in touch with Dr. Roger Lahiriri, a gynecologist at the not-for-profit Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC. Though it was built, with European support, as a maternity hospital and now offers a range of community services, the hospital specializes in repairing fistula. It’s the traumatic destruction of the perineum that some women suffer during childbirth and others during brutal rape. Unless it can be surgically repaired, it causes incontinence and the resulting odor makes the woman a pariah.


 


In addition to medical services that are otherwise unavailable, the hospital offers spiritual and psychological support. Staff members help women move toward forgiving those who violated them, when they are able to do so, for the sake of their own mental health. In recent years, as news from the Congo has begun to appear in Western media, the hospital has received attention and some international support.


 


Justine and Roger and all their allies need vastly more support and awareness, but they do have a few powerful allies. Playwright, activist, and V-Day founder Eve Ensler visited the DRC in 2007. Upon what she called her “return from hell,” she launched the campaign Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource, Power to the Women and Girls of the Democratic Republic of Congo in coordination with UNICEF and local activists. The campaign “calls for an end to impunity for sexual violence, for measures to ensure that state armed forces and police do not perpetrate sexual violence against women and girls, and for the full implementation of national laws that protect and empower women.”





Impunity, Complicity, and Responsibility


The marauders who rape the DRC’s women and its resources operate with seeming impunity. So, what can anyone do?


 


Corporations respond to economic pressures, and governments respond to political ones. Those of us who live in functioning democracies can send messages to our elected representatives. We can also send strong messages to corporations with our purchases and our investments.


 


Away from the spotlight, Saje is ferreting out and documenting the connections between corporate resource extraction and systemic violence. She takes the evidence to women who are major corporate shareholders and finds they prefer not to know. She takes it to faculty members at universities with large corporate portfolios and to ordinary investors and finds a better hearing. Though she does not encourage divestment, she urges everyone to question their pension fund managers and the banks where they do business.


 


“Most countries, including the United States and Canada, have ratified UN conventions that bind us to ‘respect, protect, and uphold human rights extraterritorially.’ Where human rights are being violated, we have a clear obligation as global citizens. We are all responsible under international law, and we are complicit in evil if we do nothing.”


 


We can all be brave in small ways. Perhaps the simplest and most satisfying action is to reach out to one individual or a few, as Justine’s friends have done and as other Peace X Peace members with sisters in the DRC are doing. We can’t change the world alone, but person by person, peace by peace, we can take responsibility.

By Mary Liepold

Photo courtesy of Peace X Peace

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