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Rape: one global step toward stopping it

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.

On a March afternoon in a dimly lit hut in a small village on the far eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lamia Milongo (not his real name) spoke about the abduction and near rape of his daughter at the hands of a soldier. Anger gave him voice, but anonymity threatens to silence it.

"I'm not famous," said the slogan on his T-shirt.

And that's probably why you haven't heard very much about Milongo's problem'or the problem of countless Congolese women caught in a war that has used their bodies as a battlefield. Rape has ruined their lives. And now, it's creeping into their villages, too, corroding what's left of community life after so many years of conflict.

But since it's happening in a place that's far away, in villages whose names we can hardly pronounce, we don't pay attention. We should—because it's a horror that stalks us, too. About 132,000 women a year in the United States report they are victims of rape, or attempted rape, says the National Organization for Women. That's one of the reasons Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994—to combat sexual assault.

Now, there's a new protection bill set for debate in Washington. This one would take the first steps toward guarding the safety of women everywhere—even in countries where governments are not up to the task. Proposed by US Senators Joseph R. Biden and Richard Lugar, the International Violence Against Women Act would require the development of a five-year strategy—supported by a $175 million annual investment—to support programs targeting violence against women. Among them would be public awareness campaigns and a strengthening of criminal and civil justice systems.

Additionally, through increased training for aid workers and expanded reporting requirements, the bill would tackle the violence women and girls suffer during humanitarian crises and conflict—times when women are particularly vulnerable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Democratic Republic of Congo. John Holmes, the United Nations under secretary for humanitarian affairs, told a reporter last October that the sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world.

But what makes these attacks even more insidious is the consequence of speaking out about them: There is danger in challenging Congo's culture of impunity. Justine Masika lives with it daily—behind the barbed wire wall erected around her house to keep her safe. She is the head of a Goma-based group that has helped more than 7,000 women who have suffered from sexual violence. Last year, soldiers punished her for her truth-telling and advocacy. They invaded her house and attacked her daughters.

But Masika is not alone. Others, like Lamia Milongo, are fighting back, too. When the soldier abducted his 12-year-old daughter to claim her as his "wife," Milongo put his own safety aside and went in pursuit. He rescued her and returned her home unharmed. But the daughter of his neighbor was not so lucky. Her rescue came too late. Now, at 15, she is pregnant, shamed, and facing a life of hardship and poverty since in Congolese culture women who have been raped are often cast off by their communities.

Sexual violence is a plague the world should be rid of. Mothers like Masika need our help. So do fathers like Milongo. We took an important step here in the US in 1994. Now it's time to take the next one—into our global community—with passage of the International Violence Against Women Act.