Congo rape survivors need more than tears and talk

Emma Batha for Thomson Reuters Foundation – WNN MDG Stories

Women rape victims at Panzi hospital Congo 2007
Women rape victims at Panzi hospital, DRC 2007. Image: James Akena/Reuters

(WNN/TRF) LONDON: The first rape victim who doctor Denis Mukwege treated in his hospital in eastern Congo had been so badly mutilated he thought it was a one-off attack by “some nutter”.

But she was soon followed by many others who had been subjected to equally unimaginable cruelty. Some were just 12 or 13 years old.

It was 1999 and war was raging across Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict formally ended in 2003, but the raping has not stopped.

The big problem for Congo is indifference, Mukwege said at a London event highlighting the issue.

He contrasted the speed with which the international community had responded to mass rape in the Balkans to its silence on Congo.

“What really scandalises me is that 10 years ago we did a round of all the capitals (to raise awareness). People felt an enormous amount of sympathy for us, but nothing was done,” he said.

“If it’s not acceptable in the Balkans, why is it acceptable in Congo? … What’s going on in East Congo is appalling and something must be done about it.”

Despite the end of the war, fighting persists in Congo, particularly in the east where Mukwege’s team, at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu province, has treated 36,000 rape survivors in the last decade.

Rape is a horribly efficient weapon of war because it doesn’t just destroy women physically and mentally, it also tears up families and annihilates entire communities, Mukwege said.

“It’s effective because first of all most women in Congo are raped publically so their children, husbands, neighbours witness this atrocity,” he told TrustLaw ahead of the event.

“Secondly, they’re not just raped by one person but many at the same time …. And sometimes I have seen genitals completely destroyed by guns and bayonets.

“When a man or child witnesses that they are completely mentally destroyed. I’ve seen many men ask themselves, ‘How can I say I’m a man if I can’t protect my wife or daughters?’ They often leave so they can seek anonymity because they can’t bear to stay.”


The violence destroys communities by leaving many women unable to bear children and by condemning others to die from HIV/AIDS.

It also causes social disintegration, Mukwege said. When the men leave the village, the rapists take their place, the community is broken up and the population becomes very poor.

At least half a million women have been raped in Congo since the war began in 1998, prompting the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, to call the country “the rape capital of the world”.

Even young children and babies are raped.

American playwright and activist Eve Ensler, who also spoke at the London event, highlighted the story of one eight-year-old girl she had met at Panzi Hospital who had been gang raped every day for two weeks and was so badly injured that she was incontinent and would not let anyone cuddle her.

Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, linked the continuing atrocities against girls and women to the scramble for Congo’s valuable minerals which are used in everyday technology.

“We’re all responsible for that war because every time we use our cell phones, every time we use a playstation we use minerals that come from Congo,” she said.

“And the way minerals are accessed is through destroying villages and communities so the militias can get access to the mines. And the way they do that often is to rape and terrorise and torture …”

Many women are also raped by soldiers. Mukwege told TrustLaw a major problem was the fact that the army included ex-rebels who were brutalised as child fighters during the war and never rehabilitated.

He wants the government to reform the security services, end the culture of impunity and pay reparations to rape victims.


At Panzi, repairing women’s physical injuries is only the first step.

This year a refuge called City of Joy opened near the hospital to provide psychological and socio-economic support to help the women reintegrate into society.

“We decided to empower Congolese women and girls so they can take back their country…,” said the centre’s director Christine Deschryver, a Belgian-Congolese rights activist, who witnessed the rape and murder of her best friend in 2000.

Women at City of Joy can learn literacy, English, computer skills, self-defence and small-business management among other things. They also receive sex education – normally taboo in Congo.

The psychotherapy at the centre is based on dance, art and music. Western one-to-one talking therapies don’t work in a culture where the focus is on the community, Deschryver said.

The centre is a joint project between the Panzi Foundation, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and Ensler’s global V-Day movement to end violence against women.

Although Panzi has received a stream of visits from dignitaries, Deschryver said they only came to look, not to help.

“It’s like a zoo – the new attraction of Congo,” she said.

“So many people have come to visit us. … They all come, they cry and then they leave and we never hear from them again,” she added. “Nothing is changing.”


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