Mass Rape in the Congo: A Crime Against Society
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Tens of thousands of rape victims have survived but suffer enduring symptoms of psychological trauma -- depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, despair -- and debilitating physical problems: crippled or missing limbs, blindness, damaged or destroyed internal organs and/or genitalia and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Thousands have been left with fistula, a complaint often misrepresented by male war correspondents unfamiliar with female anatomy. Broadly, fistula refers to any perforation in the tissues separating the vaginal canal from the urinary tract and/or the rectum. There are several different types of fistula, depending on where the holes occur, but the typical result is uncontrollable leakage through the vagina of urine or feces or both. In less violent times, fistula most commonly results from prolonged labor in childbirth when the fetus presses upon maternal tissues, cuts off blood supply and creates "dead" spots that give way. The younger, and therefore smaller, the mother, the greater the likelihood of prolonged labor and fistula. When women have access to adequate maternal care, fistula is easily prevented; but in the DRC it occurs in remote areas even in the best of times.
Denis Mukwege, the Congolese obstetrician/gynecologist heralded in the international press as a "savior" of rape victims, trained in fistula surgery before the war to treat such complications of childbirth; but in the past decade, as head of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, he has surgically repaired thousands of fistulas, most of them caused by traumatic injury -- by brutal multiple rapes or by "foreign objects." He takes heart that in the past year or so, with a decline in militia activity in South Kivu, cases of traumatic fistula have declined as well. Yet among the surgeries he now performs for obstetric fistula, one in three patients is a teenage girl, a former captive "wife" who gave birth years ago and has been living in the forest, outcast, reeking of urine and shit, unaware that she might find help. So far, Panzi's patients have come from the vicinity of Bukavu; with the addition of a mobile unit to venture farther afield, Mukwege says, "we will find many more."
It's true that long before the war Congolese men treated women as lesser creatures, forbidden to plant money-making crops such as coffee and cotton -- forbidden even to eat nourishing foods like eggs and chicken. It's true that men routinely used force if necessary to compel women's labor and sexual service. It's true that Congolese men hold notions that promote rape: that having sex makes men stronger, for example, or that having sex with a virgin immunizes against AIDS. And it's true that child rape is traditionally considered an offense only against the father whose property is "spoiled," an offense resolved by "compromise" -- that is, a man-to-man payoff from the rapist to the victim's father. But all these cultural factors are insufficient to explain the frequency and unspeakable brutality of rape in the DRC in the past decade. Look at the war in the DRC from the outside and it's hard to see it as anything but a war against women. Just a few months ago, long after the war officially ended, Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, former deputy UN force commander in the DRC, said, "It is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier right now in eastern DRC."
It's so dangerous that a special session of the UN Security Council in June passed Resolution 1820 to demand "the immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians." The new resolution built on another landmark, Security Council Resolution 1325, which called for women's full participation at decision-making levels in conflict resolution and peace building (since passing in 2000 with much fanfare, Resolution 1325 has been broadly ignored). Resolution 1820 makes clear that widespread rape of women in war prevents the very participation in public life that Resolution 1325 identified years ago as essential to devising durable peace.