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In a place where impunity is rampant, the most essential tasks can easily become a matter of life and death for women vulnerable to sexual violence. (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
To commemorate International Women’s Day, Danilo Giannese of JRS Great Lakes describes the dilemma facing women in eastern Congo who have to risk sexual violence in order to make ends meet. Contributing to ending this unacceptable climate of brutality is the 2012 focus for JRS in the region.

Goma, 8 March 2012 – On a morning like any other, Blandine*, a 29-year-old woman living in camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), leaves her dilapidated hut in Mweso village to seek food and firewood.

Like many other women, Blandine’s husband is not able to go with her; he leaves for work early in the morning and does not come back until after sundown. She has to walk several kilometres alone under the scorching Congolese sun.

Finally she finds what she is looking for and starts to head home. On the way back she thinks that at last she will soon be able to feed her three small children. Suddenly, she finds five armed men blocking her way. They begin mocking and shoving her until she falls on the ground. Then, one by one, they rape her.

"When they finally left I didn't know if I was dead or alive. My face was wet with tears but I didn't want anyone to see me. I was ashamed of what had happened to me", said Blandine.

Luckily, she knew what she had to do – go to hospital within 72 hours to get the necessary medication: pills for those who think they may have been exposed to HIV. But she could not tell her husband what had happened for fear he would disown her, throw her out of her home and turn her family against her.

Men often accuse women for being responsible for sexual abuse or accuse them of having taken a lover. In such case Blandine would probably also have been shunned by other camp residents. After the ordeal of being raped, it would have been only the beginning of more suffering. But she couldn’t get to the hospital without the help of her husband; it was too far to go without some form of private transportation.

"To get my husband to accompany me, I pretended I was having convulsions. The doctor asked him to wait outside and was then able to give me the tablets. If I had taken them at home my husband would have immediately understood what had happened. All the men here now know very well what these HIV pills are like and what colour they are", explained Blandine.

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a terrible source of suffering in DRC, so much so that the country is known as the rape capital of the world. According to a recent study, every hour 48 women and girls are subject to such violence.

The situation is much worse in eastern Congolese Kivu provinces, an area characterised by the presence of local and foreign armed rebel groups and massive forced displacement of civilians. In North Kivu alone there are more than 500,000 IDPs, 25 percent of the total in the country.

The perpetrators of SGBV can be rebels and soldiers in the regular army, but are sometimes ordinary civilians and even IDPs living in the camps. Their victims– women, girls and even children–are left with indelible physical and psychological scars.

One of the biggest obstacles to the reduction of SGBV in Congo is rampant impunity for those responsible. Even though the country has enacted some of the most severe legislation in the world against sexual violence –providing for from five to 20 years imprisonment and double this if committed by members of the armed forces – very few perpetrators of rape have been convicted.

In such circumstances, SGBV victims prefer to remain silent, choosing not to report the violence they suffer. They hope to avoid retaliation from their aggressors whose crimes go unpunished.

Ending this horrendous practice

Putting an end to impunity for perpetrators of SGBV is a top priority in North Kivu. Everyone needs to equate SGBV with heavy prison sentences; those who commit acts of sexual violence ought to be put behind bars.

Only when the international community, particularly the US and EU governments put pressure on the Congolese authorities to enforce the laws on sexual abuse will this pattern of impunity decrease. A first step would be to tie development assistance from major donors to reductions in impunity.

Moreover, further work needs to done to raise awareness of the problem through the provision of both formal and informal education services for displaced communities. More support needs to be given to NGOs and local communities to organise campaigns in villages and schools to raise awareness of human rights in general and about legislation on sexual violence in particular. More practical support for those working directly with victims of sexual- and gender-based violence is needed, as well as basic information on what to do in case of an attack.

The outcome of the struggle against impunity depends, above all, on the will of the Congolese authorities. Educating people to oppose all forms of violence with every means at their disposal is a concrete goal that can be achieved with daily commitment, nourished by passion and hope. JRS is firmly convinced of this, and will continue to stand by the populations of this increasingly neglected part of Africa.

Danilo Giannese, JRS Great Lakes Advocacy and Communications Officer

*Her name has been changed for reasons of privacy and security

For more information on JRS work in Great Lakes, click here