Our responsibility in the Congo

05 November 2008

There is a shameful silence over the rape and torture of women, says Elaine Storkey

IT IS COMMON to contrast the breathtaking natural beauty of the Eastern Dem­o­cratic Republic of Congo with the barbarism of the armed conflict there. The tall moun­tains, sparkling lakes, and fertile mango forests seem too pure a setting for the inhu­man­ity and desecration caused by the brutal militia.

Since 1998, war has claimed more than five million lives in the Congo, and, in spite of a peace deal and a transitional government in 2003, the country has remained volatile, especially in the east. Warring rebels, tribal groups, quarrels im­ported from Rwanda, battles for gold and coltan, corrupt officials, and trade in arms all increase the instability.

The situation is under an international gaze, however. Last December, the United Nations renewed the mandate for the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo, and in January the United States, the European Union, the UN, and the Africa Union brokered a peace conference in Goma which resulted in a ceasefire. The Act of Agreement was signed by the Congolese govern­ment and its adversary, General Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP, with 21 other armed groups.

Nine months later, when one million people have been displaced from North Kivu alone, peace seems a remote and forlorn hope.

Yet it was important that demands were named in the peace accord; for it outlines neces­sary conditions for peace and justice. It also highlights one significant omission — a require­ment to end sexual violence towards women (Features, 15 August).

The omission is striking, considering that a UN Security Council resolution, a few weeks before, had obliged its peacekeepers to protect women in the Congo and strongly condemned sexual violence there. Yet this requirement did not, seemingly, find its way into the agenda of the peace conference.

Stephen Lewis, the former UN Ambassador in Africa, suggested in a speech in New Orleans in April that the required amnesty is actually detrimental to women, leading soldiers to believe that, since their raping is “officially forgiven and forgotten, they can rape with impunity again”.


One human-rights activist has described the Congo as “the most dangerous place on earth for women”: a place where rape as a weapon of war, mutilation, gang torture, blinding, and maiming are all inflicted indiscriminately on women and young girls.

Appallingly, these everyday displays of power and hatred go largely unchecked and ignored by the law. When I was in the South Kivu province, I asked the officer in charge of military justice how many courts dealt with sexual violence against women, and how many men had been convicted. The answer, as I expected, was none.

Goma itself has seen much sexual violence. Yet it has also become a place of hope. A Christian hospital called Heal Africa was set up here, decades ago, by a fearless Congolese surgeon who regularly risks his life to serve his fellows. It trains health professionals and strengthens social activists. Inevitably, the commitment to holistic care has drawn it into treating and combating sexual violence.

Since 2003, it has carried out about 1500 fistula reparative surgeries, and helped some 12,000 women in north-east Congo. I spoke to many women with shattered lives, and I thanked God for Heal Africa’s commitment to integrating physical, spiritual, and social healing. But a responsibility rests on us, too — a political, Christian one — to join the clamour for international recognition and condemnation of this horrific crime against one half of humanity.

Dr Elaine Storkey is President of Tearfund.

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