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Women Pay a Grievous Price in Congo’s Conflict

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) is a country of many paradoxes. Potentially among the riches countries in the world, it is now one of the poorest. The reason for this paradoxical situation: ravaging internal and external conflicts. One of its most dire consequences is that its female population, although young, energetic, and entrepreneurial, has suffered grievously. Women rape victims are numbered in the tens of thousands.

Congo has a deadly combination of warring ethnic groups, a weak and corrupt central government, greedy political and military leaders, and international corporations and neighboring countries eager to exploit the country’s abundant resources. Their illegal exploitation is taking place at a brutally swift pace.

The situation remains volatile, particularly in eastern Congo where civilians are targets of vicious attacks from government forces and armed groups, dozens of them active. Their commanders have been accused of ethnic massacres, rapes of women and children, forced recruitment of minors and widespread pillage.

Most rapists are soldiers, and a significant proportion of them are HIV-infected. “Rape is an engine of HIV infection,” said Anne-Christine d’Adesky, an American journalist and AIDS and human rights activist. Transmitting the infection to women can be a death sentence for them, since few resources are available to treat the infection.

Rape is a brutal way of showing male dominance, frequently conducted in public in front of husbands and children. Dr. Denis Mukwege, who does extraordinary work in treating rape victims, calls this behavior “toxic masculinity”.

Rape has many other negative effects, medical and social, and it has an impact on families and communities. Gang rape -a frequent occurrence in Congo- can provoke internal bleeding and vaginal fistulas, which prevent women from controlling their bodily functions. Dr. Mukwege, believes that warfare is responsible for these massive cases of rape.

Besides humiliating their victims, men also commit rape to debase their ethnic, tribal or religious group. In addition to the obvious physical and psychological violence of the act itself, many women get pregnant as a result of the rape. Even when pregnancy doesn’t occur, a significant proportion of men still reject their wives, mothers or daughters because of the stigma attached to rape. Among the survivors, many are forced to become sex slaves.

Some of the raped women have found that speaking about the crime committed against them reduces the stigmatization associated with the act. In Shabunda, a territory in South Kivu, victims have formed a psychological support group of 500 members. This is an important endeavor, since medical staff in charge of treating these women is poorly trained in offering psychological treatment and have no equipment to treat them medically.

In some areas, priests fill an important function. They publicize the availability of medical treatment and counseling for victims of sexual violence. In so doing, they contribute to reduce the stigma, and make it easier for victims to seek help.

Dr. Mukwege believes that African societies will not advance until they address the impact of both ‘toxic masculinity’ and the negative cultural norms on women. For African women, the time to reclaim their rights is now.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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