40 day fast: rape in the Congo
This post is part of the 40 Day Fast, a collaborative effort by 80 bloggers to draw attention to the world's great needs hosted by Inspired to Action. Be sure to also check out Beth's blog today; she is writing about Compassion International.
A note to new readers: this post deals with a sensitive subject and is not appropriate for children under age 15.
Nothing prepared me for Elise*. Taken from her family at age 11 to be a sexual slave to rebel soldiers in the forest, pregnant at 12, and now in a hospital where she was receiving treatment for the wounds those soldiers had inflicted on her broken body, Elise sat expressionless, telling her story to the camera without emotion. The only way for her body to survive the massive physical and emotional trauma, explained my friend Esther, who showed me her story in hopes of getting me to understand, was for her mind to shut down.
My dissertation research in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world's least stable regions, has taken me to many unexpected places, but the hospitals that serve victims of the country's rape epidemic shocked me to the core. Working with very limited resources, Heal Africa hospital in Goma and the Panzi Hospital of Bukavu do their best to treat the bodies, minds, and spirits of some of the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who have experienced the worst that human beings can do to one another.
The situation in the eastern Congo is complicated; after 12+ years of civil and international war, no one (including the national government) is strong enough to control the region, so the countryside experiences chronic insecurity. Up to 5.2 million people have died since 1996; that's the proportional equivalent of losing every citizen of Texas in ten years. Poverty is on a scale that's difficult to believe, even by African standards. In one city in which I work, it's very common for individuals to only eat one meal every 48 hours. Children and adults rotate eating one day to the next.
Periodic outbreaks of violence force hundreds of thousands of Congolese to flee their homes and crops, which contributes to chronic food insecurity and the spread of disease in refugee camps. Meanwhile, in rural areas various rebel groups compete with one another and the national army to control territory, from which they then extract whatever natural resources are available, loot villages for food and money, and rape women and girls on an unprecedented scale. The national army is no help; in fact, they're often responsible for just as many human rights violations as are the rebels.
Estimates are that as many as 2 of every 3 women have been raped in some areas of the east.
Chantal. Marie. Sarah. Claire. Marta. Annette. Chloe.
They all have names and faces and stories. They are all people, just like you and me. They are someone's sister, someone's daughter, someone's mother, someone's aunt, someone's niece, someone's wife, someone's sweetheart, someone's friend.
Imagine what it would be like in the U.S. if 2/3 of the women in, say, California or North Carolina or Alabama were being raped. Imagine how we would respond if their attackers were completely indiscriminate - if they went after elderly grandmothers and innocent young girls, some as young as 3 and 4.
Imagine if those rapes were as incredibly violent as they are in the Congo. Rape there is usually gang rape, often with the deliberate intent of destroying a woman's body without killing her. Frequently, soldiers are certain to have an HIV+ soldier participate in order to infect their victim. Even more frequently, the husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons who try to stop the perpetrators are forced to watch and then killed in front of their wives and mothers.
Moreover, when the soldiers are finished with their crimes, they often fire a weapon or insert foreign objects like glass or tree branches into the women's bodies, creating a tear in the vaginal wall called a fistula. A woman or girl with a fistula becomes incontinent, leaking a constant stream of urine and excrement from her body. They are rejected by their families, cast out by their husbands, and often live in terrible pain. Their tormentors, meanwhile, almost always get away with their crimes. The country's judicial system is barely functional, and the police don't even have vehicles.
What if this were happening here?
We wouldn't stand for it, that's what. We would demand action, put a stop to it, and do all we could to help the victims. So why are we willing to sit by while hundreds of thousands of women and girls live in pain and fear on the other side of the world?
But there are those who care and those who work to help. The doctors at Heal Africa and Panzi hospitals perform restorative surgeries on fistula victims, while other programs help these women and girls to heal emotionally and spiritually, and to develop means of supporting their families. They treat victims of HIV and malnutrition, and work to be spaces of sanity and safety under very difficult conditions. They bring hope and healing to those who have little reason to believe that anyone cares for them anymore.
It doesn't take much to help a Congolese woman to rebuild her life, and you can be part of doing so. At Heal Africa, $10 will buy shoes for five women. $50 will put a child in school for a full year. If you can spare $300, that will cover surgery to repair one woman's fistula. You can donate to Heal Africa here.
Whether you choose to give financially or not, please keep the women and girls of the eastern DR Congo in your prayers. Pray for girls like Elise, and for the women whose faces you see on this post, all of whom have suffered traumatic fistulas as a result of violent rape. Pray for the teenage mothers who have to learn to love the babies they conceived through no choice of their own, because the orphanages are full, and there's no international adoption system for the Congo. Pray that God will bring peace to the region, that there will be justice for those who commit such atrocious crimes, and that God will heal the bodies and spirits of those who suffer so much.
To learn more about the conflict in the eastern Congo, check out the Enough Project's resource page.For other suggestions on ways to help women and girls who are victims of rape in the eastern Congo, check out this article I wrote on the subject.
*Name changed to protect privacy