Edit: The episode has been removed from YouTube where I watched it, but I have posted a clip from the episode.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem recently started a new series on VICELAND called WOMAN where she explores issues related to women all over the world.
In this particular episode, the series explores sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I encourage you to watch the video even if you are aware of the situation. It is important that you hear the harrowing tales of women who have suffered through so much but are still standing, trying to survive each day. However, I must give you a warning, the violence can be very upsetting.
As I was watching the video, I was simultaneously doing research on the DRC and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Although, I know that the DRC is not the only place where rape is used in such a way, it is the focus of this blog post in order to bring attention to a larger worldwide problem.
During the first and second Congo war, rape was very common but many assumed that after the war, it would subside and society would return to some semblance of normal. Unfortunately, that has not happened. The DRC is very resource rich. It is full of gold, diamonds, and minerals like coltan that many other countries and foreign investor seek. Coltan is a mineral that is essential to the production of our cell phones and the laptop on which I am typing up this blog post. Though the nation is resource-rich, many of those riches do not reach the everyday people who spend hours mining for them. Because of high demand, the market for these resources are extremely competitive and violent in the DRC and neighboring central African nations and the most vulnerable are often those who get hurt. It has fueled infighting, corruption, and war.
During the Rwandan Genocide, many rebels fled into the DRC and the violence came along with them. It is not uncommon to see conflicts that are thought to be confined within a country’s border to spill out across into other nations. And that is exactly what happened in this region. Millions of refugees from Rwanda fled to Eastern DRC including some exiled militia leaders who helped start the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. Some began to terrorize the local population. They began to attack the Tutsi population in the DRC and began the first Congo war.
Once that war was over, tensions in the DRC, especially in the eastern part, had not subsided and the Second Congo War began. I won’t go into the history of that, partly because it is very complicated but also because I want to refocus on the title of this post. Though the second war ended in 2003, subsequent conflicts, bursts of violence, etc, has kept the nation from achieving relative peace. Many experts say that the presence of the natural resources listed above and the lack of control of the national government on them have funded militia groups, rebel groups, and foreign armies to come in and terrorize locals and take the resources. Often those that they terrorize are women and their method is rape. It makes me sick to think that the devices that I use every day could be the reason for so much violence in another part of the world.
Currently, the DRC is called “the rape capital of the world”. The rates of sexual violence against women have been steadily rising since the late 1990s. Although the majority of the victims are women, children, men have often been victims as well. I point this out to show you that rape and other forms of sexual violence are never about sex. It is usually about power and control; taking power away from the individual, dehumanizing them to inflict fear. A fundamental abuse of one’s human rights.
Survivors are often attacked in their homes. I have heard of attackers, killing whole families before raping the mother, or killing the men and raping the women. Sometimes children are raped and impregnated by their rapist. As bad as that is, the stigma surrounding rape can be even more suffocating. Survivors who try to seek help are ostracized or disowned by family members. Sometimes the children who are products of rape are sent away along with the mother to keep the family from shame.
The first of the many things we must do to help combat this evil is to end the stigma that makes life extremely difficult for survivors of rape. To do this we need to start talking about rape, whether in the DRC or on college campuses in a different way. We need to listen to survivors, believe them and assure them that it was not their fault. We need to have harsher punishments for attackers and enforce those punishments to let people know that they will not get away with committing this crime.
I have donated to various causes that are trying to help women in the DRC including Dr. Denis Mukwege’s Panzi Foundation. It supports a hospital that provides care for women who have been brutally raped as well as educating the population of men and women about rape in order to remove the stigma. You can do your part by educating others and engaging people in conversations about rape. Doing things like this can start changing cultural norms and perspectives. Talk to your friends, don’t avoid the conversation if it comes up and call someone out if they make a joke you don’t agree with. You may not be able to do something directly but you may inspire someone who may inspire someone else who has a direct impact. You might be the pebble that starts the wave.
This episode of WOMAN also highlights a woman who is trying to help survivors, Mama Masika. She helped start a small community for survivors and their children. They sustain themselves and try to protect themselves from future attacks.
Links to donate:
-Laïssa (Currently reading The Orbital Perspective by Ron Garan)