DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: For Rape Survivors in My Country, One London Summit is Not Enough

Monday, June 9, 2014
The Guardian
Central Africa
Congo (Kinshasa)
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

I have met survivors of rape, ranging from babies a few months old to elderly women: in my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, we suffer the daily reality of sexual violence in conflict. But in addition to the inhuman cruelty they have suffered, these people all have something else in common – they have had no justice. It means that women and men see their abusers walking around free, in the same communities where they committed their crimes.

I work at the Justice and Peace Commission in the city of Bukavu. There are so many terrible stories I could tell you, but the horror Michele (not her real name) experienced has stayed with me. After Michele's husband was murdered by rebels when he refused to rape his own daughter, they made her eat his flesh. She was taken captive for six months and treated as a sex slave, forced to eat flesh from the dead bodies of fellow hostages to keep herself alive.

In many cases, rebels like those who kidnapped Michele have now been incorporated into the national army. A woman may see the man who raped her every day in the role of protector, or policeman, in her village.

Those survivors who seek justice often find themselves required to provide medical evidence of their rape or produce legal documents before the matter can be investigated. Many simply lack the funds or legal support to access the paperwork that is the first step to justice. Michele had never even visited a hospital after her ordeal before she came to us seeking help.

This week, a global summit co-hosted by William Hague and Angelina Jolie aims to stop rape being used as a weapon of war. The publicity it has gained has been encouraging – in my country, we rarely see the issue up in lights.

We need people to understand that sexual violence has lifelong consequences, not just for the survivors but for the next generation. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, growing numbers of children who were born after rape are being stigmatised, ostracised and denied an education. It's not difficult to identify these children – so many women were raped in full view of their whole community. And family members find it hard to accept a child when they know the day he was conceived his father killed their son, or brother, or neighbour.

We need international help to tackle this stigma, and ensure children born to rape are supported through education and beyond. We can't forget that many survivors also require ongoing physical and medical attention.

But we must also accept that we will never eliminate sexual violence in conflict until we eliminate conflict itself, and tackle its causes – whether it is the fight to control the mineral wealth of countries like mine, or the hopelessness and bitterness bred by an unending cycle of poverty. The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in natural resources, but many people don't even go to school. As long as people are profiting from this conflict and misery, why would they want it to stop?

I worry that people will get tired of hearing about the problems in my country, and they'll say: "Oh, this never ends – 20 years I've been hearing about this." But what the Congolese people want is peace, and we can build that peaceful future if the international community ensures rebel gangs and those committing war crimes do not go unpunished.

If we can put an end to sexual violence, if we can start to heal the wounds of the past, and if we can combine justice with peace, then ours can be a future built on hope, not one forever shrouded in fear.