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In Congo, women face sexual violence and legacy of shame

By Coco McCabe
Small rooms crowded with small beds at a facility in Goma serve as a safe haven for women survivors of sexual assault in Congo.

Justine Masika had long been interested in the well-being of poor rural women in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo when, in 1996, they began to come to her with reports of a new kind of horror. Out in their fields, they had become prey to men, who attacked and sexually abused them.

But it wasn't until an 80-year-old woman from Walikale in North Kivu was brought to Masika that the full weight of what was happening became clear, galvanizing her resolve. In the war that was sweeping the region, rape was being used as a weapon not only to degrade women, but to humiliate their husbands and whole communities, too. Masika realized the women and girls of eastern Congo needed organized, pro-active help—and Synergie des femmes pour les Victimes de Violences Sexuelles was born.

Its mission, says Masika, its director, is threefold: to raise awareness about sexual violence toward women, to take care of those who have been sexually abused, and to push for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Since 2003, the organization, an Oxfam partner, has worked with 7,018 women—women like the one from Walikale, who so desperately needed help and for whom there was none available. Raped and left dumped in a field, she was rescued by a hunter and eventually brought to Goma, the capital of North Kivu. But she was penniless, and despite her serious injuries, the hospital would not treat her. And there she died.

Hers is just one of too many stories of sexual abuse and abandonment—of violence that is still rippling through the remote hills of the eastern provinces, that continues to torture its victims with shame, and that now, in a newer twist, has begun to corrode the core of traditional communities, too.

The question they ask of themselves

In a small mudbrick building propped on the edge of a dirt road in Kilungutwe, a crowd of villagers has gathered. It's dark and sweltering inside, but every inch of every bench is taken, and more people crowd at the door and window. They have come to discuss the troubles in their village—the extortion they face at the hands of soldiers, the difficulty they have in getting enough to eat—and now the talk has turned to sexual violence.

With anger still in his voice, Elisha Ezigobe, one of the local chiefs, describes the abduction of his 12-year-old daughter. A soldier took her for his wife—without Ezigobe's consent. As soon as he learned what had happened, he headed for the soldier's camp, dismissing any concern about the repercussions he might face in confronting armed men. He was determined to rescue his daughter.

"I took my girl and left," Ezigobe said through an interpreter. "I had my machete. I was going to fight back." His outrage scared the soldier off, and Ezigobe returned his daughter—unharmed—to their home.

But the man sitting next to Ezigobe was not so lucky. His daughter, too, was taken by a soldier. A night passed before he was able to find her and bring her home. Now, at 15, she is pregnant.

There are many stories like this, says Ezigobe, and some fathers are afraid to stand up to the soldiers.

But it's not just military men who are the perpetrators, say others in the roadside hut. Community members have turned into culprits, too—with few serious consequences for their crimes. If the abused girl is 17 or 18, the solution is often to have her marry the rapist. If she's younger, the local chief could order the man to make some kind of reparation—such as a goat—to the girl and her family.

Why is all of this happening now?

"They're asking themselves that question," says Jacqueline Tshilemba, a community educator for APIDE, one of Oxfam's local partners that is working with the people of Kilungutwe. "What they can see is this culture has happened since the war. It happens all over the place and no one gets punished."

Weak judicial system

At the root of the problem, says Josee Lotsove, is a society that views women as inferior. Lotsove is the coordinator for a local women-based organization called Association des Mamans Anti-Bwaki, or AMAB, an Oxfam partner headquartered in Bunia. Along with those traditional attitudes about women, she says, is the Congo's weak judicial system, which often fails to hold offenders accountable.

When perpetrators are arrested, adds Marie Kanyobayo, it's possible for them to pay a little money to the authorities and buy their freedom. Kanyobayo is the head of another women-based organization called Union des Femmes pour le Developpement, also an Oxfam partner.

It's at this foundation of impunity that Masika, the head of Synergie, is chipping away. Part of Synergie's work involves educating village chiefs and other local opinion leaders—teachers, pastors—about the nature of what has been happening to women, about the catastrophe that it has become, and about the importance of villagers accepting survivors back into the community fold.

But the work comes with great risk.

For speaking out about a problem that has devastated the lives of so many women, Masika and her family have themselves become targets. Last September, six military men came to her house in the early evening and tortured her two daughters, 22 and 20. Masika has since sent them to live in Nairobi, and an aid organization has paid to surround her house with barbed wire to protect her.

Masika admits that sometimes the challenges are so daunting that she's not sure she can continue with her advocacy. But she knows that her voice—and the voices of all the volunteers who work for Synergie—are essential in helping to protect the rights of women who cannot, or dare not, speak out for themselves.

In the Congo, the consequences of rape are far-reaching and affect whole families. Rape heaps shame upon its victims. Women often find themselves cast off by their husbands, and forced into complete self-dependence. Young girls who have been raped lose their chance for marriage and for having a family of their own—and the position of honor that being a mother brings.

On their own

At a medical center in Goma where Synergie carries out some of its work, women who are recovering from sexual abuse confront its ugly legacy: possible HIV infection and lives of hardship, including the need to find ways to support themselves. Here, they are learning to weave baskets from long strips of plastic, a skill that will help them earn a living when they are well enough to return to their villages.

But for some, the psychological wounds are so deep they don't want to leave the security and support in which Synergie has wrapped them. For others, the road home is crowded with obstacles that may prove insurmountable. One 36-year-old woman tells of in-laws who are trying to turn her children against her, accusing her of being promiscuous after she was abducted and held as a sex slave and later, in a second round of horror, raped and left pregnant by a government soldier.

For Amina, a volunteer who has been working with Synergie since its founding, the stories she hears from women and girls who have been abused weigh heavily on her. Many of them have become her friends, and she knows that Congolese culture will dictate the future they face—likely one of great difficulty.

Given how sweeping the problem of rape and sexual violence now is, might that culture become more understanding, and even forgiving?

Amina sits quietly for a moment before she replies. A weariness seems to frame her answer. Women are speaking out more, she says. In the past, they kept silent. But as for real change, she can't say when that will come.