Congo, Democratic Republic of the

As DR Congo crisis persists, UN classifies rape as weapon of war

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© UNICEF video
The UNICEF-supported campaign, ‘Stop Raping our Greatest Resource: Power to Women and Girls of Democratic Republic of Congo’ trains women to be community leaders.

By Tanya Turkovich

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 24 June 2008 – In a momentous step forward for the protection of women and girls in DRC and around the world, the UN Security Council has voted unanimously in favour of a resolution classifying rape as a weapon of war. 

Resolution 1820, which passed last week, reiterates the status of sexual violence as a war crime, a crime against humanity, a form of torture and a constituent act of genocide. It also advances efforts to sanction perpetrators and raise the political, military and economic cost of such violence.

‘Unparalleled brutality’

In DRC, where years of war have taken a devastating toll, sexual violence has occurred on a mass scale. Since 1994, hundreds of thousands of women and girls here have been raped.

Due to weak existing laws, however, survivors of sexual violence in DRC face enormous barriers to securing justice. Many of these women never come forward. 

“Sexual violence in DRC is on a scale and brutality unparalleled elsewhere in the world,” says Child Protection Specialist Pernille Ironside in UNICEF's eastern DRC regional office. “While rape certainly existed prior to the war, the brutal nature of the violations that we see is appalling – with over 1,000 women and girls raped per month. 

“This is truly a context in which sexual violence has taken on a new dimension,” she adds. 

Afraid to go home

Rapes are particularly horrific in the context of war. In addition to the emotional scars, survivors can be left with unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. 

Many young girls and women are so severely brutalized that they acquire traumatic fistulae – leaving them unable to hold their urine or feces. Fistulae require lengthy operations and recovery time. In DRC, there are just two hospitals equipped to handle the severity of these wounds. One of them is the UNICEF-supported PANZI Hospital.

To meet the women and girls in this hospital is to have one’s heart broken. Survivors talk of being gang raped in front of their husbands and of witnessing the murder of their families then being left for dead. 

When and if these women return home, they are often ostracized by their families and communities. Perhaps worst of all, their rapists are often still at large.

“They're afraid to go back to their village,” said PANZI Hospital Director Dr. Denis Mukwege.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
Since 1994, hundreds of thousands of women and girls in DR Congo have been raped. Many are afraid to come forward and suffer in silence.

‘Stop Raping our Gratest Resource’

UNICEF has taken steps to respond to sexual violence in DRC. One of the latest efforts is the global campaign, ‘Stop Raping our Greatest Resource: Power to Women and Girls of Democratic Republic of Congo’.

As part of this grassroots movement, UNICEF and its partners are helping women from all sectors of society to talk about sexual violence in women’s forums and to become advocates within their own communities. The project has women talking about their rights in a culture that has traditionally suppressed their voices. For many, it’s the first time they have heard sexual violence defined as a violation of their rights.

“One of the changes I have noticed is that women have the courage to voice their opinion more boldly,” said one participant in the programme. “In addition, women that we equip and empower in the forums have a great impact and influence in their communities.”

Amongst the activities of the global campaign is to support the reintegration of survivors back in their communities through ‘Joy Centres’ – facilities that provide psychological support and skill-building activities, which can lead to income generation for women.

Concrete measure needed

Such programmes are encouraging signs, yet they are just the first steps. Although the physical wounds may eventually heal, many women still suffer from the stigma of rape as well as the knowledge that the men who committed the crime are likely still out there.  

Moreover, cases of rape perpetrated by civilians outside of armed groups in DRC are also increasing.

The work of the humanitarian community in protecting women and girls from rape has been essential, but the problem will continue until there is the political will to bring the hostilities to an end. Thus, UNICEF applauds the new UN resolution on rape as a weapon of war and welcomes concrete follow-up measures to help women in DRC and other countries achieve safety and justice.

Across DRC, meanwhile, women are becoming activists, taking to the streets, organizing events and working to reclaim their lives.

 


 

 

Video

May 2008: UNICEF correspondent Tanya Turkovich reports on efforts to stop rape and heal survivors of violence in DR Congo.
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