One of the many subjects covered by the gathering of organizations from around the globe during the United Nations’ largest meeting on gender equality recently was the ever-increasing rise of rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Congo has been dubbed “The Rape Capital of the World”, and for good reason. In 2004 Amnesty International said that 40,000 cases of rape had been reported over the previous six years, the majority occurring in South Kivu. These are the reported cases where victims have sought treatment. It is estimated that there are as many as 200,000 surviving rape victims living in the Congo today.
Mireille Tushiminina formed the Shalupe Foundation (“Lifeboat”) in 2000 to serve women and young girl rape victims. “At first the rapes were a regional disease, mainly in the East, and has now spread throughout the country,” she says. “Cases are being reported on a daily basis, but what hurts is that no one is doing much about it. Back in the days, Dr. Denis Wukwege did do something, but one person can only do but so much.”
Dr. Mukwege, an expert in reconstructive surgeries for rape victims, has saved the lives of more than 40,000 women – most of them victims of gang rapes by soldiers and militias during the second Congo war in 1998. But as Tushiminina says “he can’t do it alone.”
Violence in Congo escalated after multiple invasions of the country by the armies of neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. In 2005 the International Court of Justice found Uganda liable for what amounts to war crimes in Congo and awarded $10 billion in reparations. Uganda has not paid and these neighboring countries are again meddling in Congo’s affairs.
Is arming these vulnerable Congolese women the way to end this madness? Tushiminina doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think it’s about being armed,” she says. “I think it’s about education and community empowerment. Women who have been affected are not being empowered – they continue to be victimized even more. How about educating men who are committing these brutal crimes, and getting strong governmental backing? Because if you don’t have the backing, nothing is moving. You can only do so much at the grass roots level. A lot has been done already, and I’m not ungrateful.”
We spoke when I covered the U.N. session which ran at its New York headquarters from March 12-23.
Tushiminina says due to U.N. pressure, and Security Council Resolution 1325, also referred to as SCR1325, Congo now has a national action plan. “However, it is not enough after 21 years,” she explains. “We do have an African Commission of Human Rights, but we need them to engage with civil society. We must be ready for change, and I think it’s what is needed in many sub-Saharan countries. But now it is a national issue, so all we can do is try to intervene and continue to lobby and advocate.”
An example of the cruelty employed in these rapes can be seen in the number of women coming forward to tell in graphic detail their horrific ordeals, hoping that there is someone who will hear their cries for help.
Here’s an example: Many rapes occur in public spaces with witnesses to the victim’s terror. The rapes are so common they have been given the name “la reine,” (the queen ). The defenseless women are stripped, tied upside down, and gang raped in the middle of the village. The government army, FARDC, is said to be the largest perpetrator.
It’s not like after being raped these women and young girls can get up, dust themselves off and continue on their way. In addition to the debilitating after-effects reported by numerous victims, such as incontinence, severe pain preventing many victims from sitting down, and uncontrollable urination, the psychological damage may not be reversible. In many cases, these women and girls are stigmatized and shunned – some die whose bodies can’t endure the brutal rape.
These vicious rapes have been going on now for 18 years, and the national leaders are still talking and doing nothing to halt this rape epidemic.
“There is a problem and to be able to walk into a large arena with your country having been labeled ‘the rape capital of the world’ and you are comfortable with that!?” Tushiminina says. She is referring to the Prime Minister, President and other government officials. “I think that for us and me as a woman, it’s time for us to step out from being on the menu, being the flavor of the day, sitting at the table defending that. It’s time for us to stop it and the only way is for women to be in decision making positions that can really push things forward. Nothing has changed and things are getting worse; and when nothing changes it means that people are not doing their jobs properly.
NGOs are putting all their hearts and souls and working hard, but things are still not moving. Since things are not moving, should we change actors? Should women be put in the positions to advance things? If I am not at the table when decisions are being made, what will be the outcome 20 years later? The outcome will be the same and nothing will have changed. There is so much to do and those making the decisions are not us.”
On the subject of leadership, Tushiminina was asked about the next national election. “The election was supposed to occur last year and now they have pushed it to 2019 – so it’s maybe – maybe not,” she says. “And unfortunately, there are not a lot of women coming forward willing to step out there. What do you tell a young girl, perhaps 10 years old, looking forward to a bright future living in one of these areas? Her mother is with her grandmother, hiding in a small toilet and all she can do is listen to her baby girl’s screams who’s being raped. How do we move forward?”
The insecurity and powerlessness in these areas is unimaginable. The real puppet masters who allow these atrocities to happen must be identified, called out and held accountable.
You can help these victims resurrect their lives and provide proof that a brighter future is still possible.
“Please share our narrative with the right stories, and lobby at the U.S. government level,” Tushiminina urged. “It needs to be done. If anyone is interested in hearing more about our work, please go to www.shalupe.org and you will find all of our initiatives and how to sponsor a girl who wants to pursue a STEM education.”
Donations of any amount will be greatly appreciated. Contact Mireille Tushiminina at www.Shalupe.org