Rape and sexual violence is a huge problem in DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), especially in the conflict-affected east. Cornelia Walther reports on how the UNICEF-supported Panzi Hospital and its mobile unit are helping to treat and empower victims.
Having spent the last three days of 2010 in Eastern DRC I was back in the Congolese capital for New Year’s Eve. My itinerary included both sides of Lake Kivu to visit projects related to sexual violence. Together with polio, sexual violence is at this stage the major concern of UNICEF in DRC. Especially in the conflict-affected east the ever-recurring sexual abuse of women and girls illustrates the summit of disrespect between genders, destroying the social fabric of communities and darkening any hopes for a bright future.
The travel from one lake-side to the other, Goma to Bukavu, by boat takes two hours and is an interesting experience. 40 people squeezed into the space of a 7×2 meter long swimming something. Considering that 4 in 5 Congolese cannot swim and that the captain has neither VHF radio nor GPS the bright orange life-saving jackets are not too compelling.
The trip-objective was twofold, with a visit of Panzi Hospital, an institution that provides care to women with gynaecological problems and survivors of sexual violence; and a meeting with the coordinators of V-Day, an association that organises worldwide awareness raising campaigns against sexual violence.
Sexual violence against girls and women, as well as boys and men, is a pervasive human rights and public health problem across DRC. In the conflict zones of eastern DRC, it has been used as a weapon of war, systematically destroying hopes for rehabilitation. Yet, sexual violence is not limited to armed conflict. Sexual violence takes place in schools, homes, and work-places all over the country.
© UNICEF DRC/2010/Cornelia Walther
According to a doctor whom I met in Panzi Hospital, poverty is among the central reasons for the persistence of sexual abuse. Hardly one in three adults is literate and the lack of education has a direct link to mutual (dis-)respect. In the East a marked imbalance exists between communities and armed groups, the latter being armed and omnipresent. Due to the lack of discipline and regular salary payment they represent danger rather than protection for local families. In the search for wood and water women have to leave the protected area of their village, further exposing themselves to aggression. As in Europe and the US, the majority of civilian perpetrators are known by their victims.
The frightening increase in reported cases of sexual violence during the past 12 months may be due to the above, or the slow proliferation of knowledge. For a long time people considered violence against females as a standard component of daily life. Only recently women have started to speak up, grasping eventually that it is not normal to be abused. In the same wave of understanding international and national organisations have expanded the monitoring of sexual violence, providing qualified assistance to survivors. Progress is underway yet the way is long. Social taboos are loud and the voices of those who request their rights are weak and rare.
Sexual violence has physical, psycho-social, and economic consequences. Survivors face risks of sexually transmittable diseases including HIV, but also unwanted pregnancies, fistula and social stigmatisation.
Fear of reprisals or rejection leads many survivors to suffer in silence and alternative arrangements are a rule rather than an exception. Countless families of survivors accept reparations (a goat in exchange for a destroyed life anybody?) or marriage to the perpetrator. Here is what a 20 year old woman in Bukavu, let’s call her Maria, told me: “They entered our house in the night, one after the other they went over me, in front of my son and husband. I thought the pain would kill me. The second time I died was when my husband refused to touch my body or the food I had prepared for him. We told nobody in our village what had happened, but that night changed my life forever.”
Many women do not manage to get care. Fear and shame are one reason; lack of access is another one. Distances between affected areas and health centres are far, streets are poor and cars or public transport hardly available. Also many women refuse to seek care in a local health centre because they are afraid that the medical staff will not keep their secret. To respond to these questions UNICEF is funding ‘Mobile clinics’ via Panzi Hospital.
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Slideshow pictures © UNICEF DRC/2010/Cornelia Walther
The Hospital was founded in 1998 by Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor who studied Gynaecology in the US. The collaboration between UNICEF and Panzi Hospital began in 1998 with the maternal health program. In 2003, UNICEF began supporting Panzi’s work with survivors of sexual violence, notably with the provision of medication, post-exposure prophylaxis kits for patients potentially exposed to HIV, training of psychologists, vocational training for survivors during their convalescence period and therapeutic milk for the treatment of severely malnourished children (often abused women cannot accept those children who result from the worst moment of their life).
Panzi’s Mobile Team has been active since 2005 and is funded 100 percent by UNICEF. Its mission is to provide medical and psychosocial treatment to survivors in the crucial 72 hours following an assault. During each descent to the field an average of 500 women comes for gynaecological consultation, including about 160 victims of sexual violence. In 2009, the Mobile Team, which comprises three doctors and two psychologists, conducted 108 emergency missions in all territories of South Kivu province and assisted over 4,000 survivors of sexual violence, half of them were children. “If a victim has been assaulted yesterday and calls us today, she has only one day remaining. To reach her in time will become our top priority;” explains Dr Ibrahim Balingene while presenting me to his team which was able to palliate Maria’s suffering.
Reponse to survivors is one pillar in the fight against sexual violence, it is complimentary with prevention. In November 2007, UNICEF teamed up with V-Day to launch a joint 18-months campaign in support of DRC’s “Stop raping our greatest resource; Power to women and girls of DRC”; which aims to put an end sexual violence in DRC and empower females. The initial campaign mobilized 3,000 people in Bukavu, including DRC’s First Lady. It kicked-off the construction of a transit centre attached to Panzi hospital - the “City of Joy” - which aims to accommodate survivors until they are ready to reintegrate their communities.
Once finalised the centre aims to serve as a safe and empowering place for survivors of sexual violence who cannot return to their families and communities or require long-term medical and psychological care. The focus will be on healing trauma, building self-esteem and building capacities of survivors and medical staff. The official inauguration is planned for February.
Cornelia Walther is Chief of Communication in UNICEF DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). She blogs about UNICEF's work in DRC at: http://cornelianow.wordpress.com