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Mass Rape in the Congo: A Crime Against Society

Mass rapes in the Congo are destroying civic life, as hundreds of thousands of rape victims are cast out from their families and communities.

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People like Fatuma and her family try to carry on, only to find that even when "peace" comes, sexual violence against women and girls continues. The habits of warfare carry over seamlessly into the "peace." And because rape was not acknowledged as a tactic of warfare before the passage of Resolution 1820, soldiers could (and still do) continue to rape civilians while complying with "peace accords" merely by not attacking each other. "Peace building" goes on, "power sharing" governments are formed and amnesty for ex-combatants is declared, even as the leaders in these negotiations continue to wage their shadowy war on women, the wedge of war against communities and cultures. The "durable peace" the UN seeks sinks in a slough of hypocrisy because men of affairs find misogyny so congenial and essential to the arrangements they make for the world.

The number of men held accountable for crimes against women in the DRC is almost nil. One reckoning found that of 14,200 reported rapes between 2005 and 2007 in South Kivu province, where Fatuma's village lies, only 2 percent of rapists were "held accountable," whatever that means. A few men arrested, a few prosecuted perhaps, but those sentenced can be counted on one hand, and few actually stay in jail. A bribe does the trick. The failure to punish anyone for rape or torture gives everyone permission. In The Greatest Silence , Lisa Jackson's important film incontrovertibly documenting rape in the DRC, a soldier who laughingly admits to having raped and instigated gang rape many times (he calls it "making love") says that rape "just happens" in wartime, and that when the war is over he won't rape anymore. But why should he stop? The absence of punishment creates a culture of impunity in which those responsible for punishing crime become complicit with criminals. Many men speak of the culture of impunity not as a barbaric breakdown of justice but as today's way of life, a free pass that encourages civilians to take up practices popularized by soldiers. And as combatants are demobilized and reintegrated into civilian life, raped women meet their rapists in the street. For them the terror continues. One in ten of the patients Mukwege treats for traumatic fistula returns to Panzi Hospital, having been raped again. Fatuma's raped daughter, who married and had a child, was raped again two years ago, this time by six soldiers who beat her husband and forced him to watch.

As for Fatuma, after her daughter was raped the first time, she went to a women's meeting called by a French humanitarian aid organization. There she learned that women could help rape survivors and fight back against the terror. She joined other local women to call a meeting in Kamanyola, and more than 1,000 women showed up. Muslim women had to drop out, grounded by their husbands, and Protestants went back to their church groups, leaving about 200 Catholic women to form the Commune des Femmes de Kamanyola (CFK), with Fatuma in the lead. GTZ, the international development arm of the German government, taught them to take rape survivors to the hospital within seventy-two hours for treatment that includes drugs to prevent STDs, HIV and pregnancy. For two years (2001-03), GTZ provided transport and medications, and CFK provided rape survivors.

Then, after the peace accords were signed, came another wave of warfare -- and another wave of rape. Fatuma and the women of CFK broke the cultural silence and began to talk to survivors and their families about rape. Fatuma also began to travel to outlying communities to talk to women about how they could help survivors and hold their communities together. When the International Rescue Committee started to work in the area, in 2002, CFK applied for help. IRC specialists in gender-based violence taught them to give supportive counseling to rape survivors and told them about women's rights.

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