DRC: Rape Persists in Congo, Even When the War is Over

Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Irish Times
Central Africa
Congo (Kinshasa)
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

THE BABY'S name is Alame. His mother, Fazili, lovingly enunciates the word as she gazes at him suckling at her breast. Alame, she explains, means “may he live” in their native Tembo language.

The fact that the name was chosen by Fazili's father means a lot to her – it's a reminder of her family's support when many other women in her position have been ostracised. Alame was born to Fazili last spring, nine months after the 15-year-old was raped by an intruder when she was at home alone.

“I praise the Lord that my family did not reject him when he was born,” she says. “My father insisted there was no way we could refuse what God had given.”

Fazili is one of the lucky ones, says Virginie Mumbere of Heal Africa, an organisation that works with women who have been subjected to sexual violence in eastern Congo.

“It is difficult enough for the mother because the pregnancy and child serve as a reminder of what happened to her, but when her family rejects her and her baby it makes the situation much worse.”

The vicious war that claimed the lives of more than 5 million people in Congo's eastern flank might be officially over but the violence continues, particularly when it comes to women. During the worst years of the conflict, armed groups used sexual violence as a weapon but now rape perpetrated by civilians accounts for a large percentage of cases. Doctors and NGOs fear it has almost settled into something approaching a norm in a society ravaged by war.

A study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that 1,152 women are raped every day in Congo, a rate equal to 48 per hour. That rate is 26 times more than the previous estimate of 16,000 rapes reported in one year by the UN.

The highest frequency of rape was found in North Kivu, Fazili's home province and the area most affected by the conflict, where 67 women per 1,000 had been raped at least once.

“The message is important and clear: rape in (Congo) has metastasised amid a climate of impunity, and has emerged as one of the great human crises of our time,” said Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

There are no precise figures relating to the number of children born from these rapes, but they are thought to number in the thousands. Abortion is illegal in Congo, so the women have little choice but to carry the pregnancy to full term.

Dr Denis Mukwege is a renowned gynaecologist who specialises in repairing the internal organs of women maimed by sexual violence. He and his staff at the Panzi hospital in the South Kivu town of Bukavu have treated more than 30,000 survivors of rape since the facility opened in 1999. He says it is very common to see a mother reject an infant born as a result of rape.

“There is a distance between the mother and the child. We have a team of psychologists and social assistants who try to help the mothers accept their children, and we've had some success with this mediation. When the mother gets a boyfriend or a potential husband though, then the situation becomes more difficult because the boyfriend or the fiancé often refuses to accept the child.”

Even if the mother bonds with her child, they have to cope with hostility from family and the wider community. Hiding their baby's origins is almost impossible and the stigma associated with rape weighs heavily.

“The child is evidence of what happened to her and that unfortunately has consequences in the community,” says Virginie Mumbere, whose organisation works with political, religious and traditional community leaders to negate or at least ease the prejudice such women encounter.

Children perceived to have been born as a result of rape by the Interahamwe, a Hutu militia instrumental in eastern Congo's war after they fled across the border from Rwanda following the 1994 genocide, are at particular risk.

“The way in which these children are treated is a huge problem,” says Dr Mukwege. “One child in the hospital once asked me, “Why are they calling me Interahamwe?” When he grows up and the community treats him like a snake or a murderer, it will create anger within him, he will not be able to integrate into the community.”

Some of those children are now reaching their teens. A number have fallen through the cracks, joining the packs of homeless children known as maibobo, who beg or steal in order to survive.

Others have seen history repeat itself. One aid worker in Goma tells the story of a teenage girl born as a result of rape who became pregnant after she herself was raped.

“It has become a generational tragedy,” she says.