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First the rape. Then the stigma. Now the healing?

11 April 2014

Sexual violence is endemic in many African countries. Tim Wyatt reports on efforts to combat it


An education: girls at play during a session to teach them about rape by a survivor, Julie Ndejessa, in Douala, Cameroon. It also covered breast-ironing, a form of mutilation with hot or hard objects to prevent girls' breasts' developing

An education: girls at play during a session to teach them about rape by a survivor, Julie Ndejessa, in Douala, Cam...


"One of the Janjaweed pushed me to the ground. He forced my clothes off, and they raped me, one by one. I did not have any energy or force against them.

"They used me. I started bleeding. It was so painful. I could not stand up. . . I was sick for seven days."

This is the harrowing testimony of a 13-year-old girl from western Sudan. It is not an isolated incident. Starting in 2003, the government-backed Janjaweed militia terrorised locals across the region in what appeared to be a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the non-Arab population.

From the beginning, rape was used alongside guns and machetes as a weapon of war.


Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, tells a similar story.

"It was in 1999 that our first rape victim was brought into the hospital. After being raped, bullets had been fired into her genitals and thighs.

"I thought that was a barbaric act of war, but the real shock came three months later," he told the BBC last year.

"Forty-five women came to us with the same story. They were all saying: 'People came into my village and raped me, tortured me.' These weren't just violent acts of war, but part of a strategy."

A US study published in 2011 suggested that up to 1000 women were being raped in the DRC each day.


In commemorations of the 100 days of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, attention has naturally been focused on the estimated 800,000 who were killed. But sexual violence was another characteristic of the attacks. It is estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped.

As happened later in Darfur, rape was not just a by-product of the lawlessness produced by the fighting; it was an integral part of the slaughter.

In its judgment against one militia leader, Jean-Paul Akayesu, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found that sexual assault used against one specific ethnic group was as much an act of genocide as murder.


In the Liberian civil war of 1993 to 2003, almost half of all women aged between 15 and 70 reported at least one act of sexual violence from a soldier or militia member.


About 65,000 women experienced sexual violence as a result of war in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2001.

THOUSANDS of miles separate all these incidents of sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa, but the similarities are such that activists are talking about a continent-wide epidemic.

The UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February that the scourge of rape could be found in almost every conflict across Africa.

"You meet a father in Mogadishu [Somalia] whose two children have been raped," she said. "One is four; one is six. You meet a mother in Liberia whose three-month-old baby has been raped. So it's everywhere you go."

Ms Bangura has identified eight countries as her priorities in combating sexual violence, and six are in Africa - the Central African Republic, the DRC, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, South Sudan, and Sudan. (The other two are Bosnia and Colombia.)

But the message that rape is being used as a weapon of war across the continent is now being taken seriously, and many activists say that the tide is turning, and the Church is in the vanguard.

Peter Grant is the co-director of Restored, a global alliance of Christians tackling violence against women. He founded Restored in 2010 after hearing a Namibian woman speak at an AIDS conference of her experience of sexual violence. Rape has been a key factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"Sexual violence in war dates back to time immemorial," Mr Grant said, "but the Rwandan genocide was very critical in people's understanding. The DRC has been perhaps the highest profile area" of more recent years, he said.

We Will Speak Out is another coalition of Churches, charities, and ecumenical bodies which are working to end sexual violence. It was founded in 2011 after a conference at Lambeth Palace. Sarah Reilly, a member of the We Will Speak Out secretariat, said that the global Church now realised that it needed to raise its voice on the issue.

"In the last five years there has been much more of an international focus on sexual violence in conflict," she said. "The environment has changed, and [the Church] has become more supportive."

Salome Ntububa, Christian Aid's regional emergency manager in the DRC, said: "It was the Church which started the first effort [against rape] in the DRC. In 2004, churches noticed that many women were not coming to services, and then realised it was because there was massive rape in their communities."

But it was not until 2010 that the rape crisis in the DRC reached international attention, she estimated.

As Christians have woken up to the scale of sexual violence in conflict, so, too, have governments. The UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has made combating violence against women one of his priorities. He is organising a global summit about it in June.

Speaking to the Church Times this week, he said: "Sexual violence is often one of the first things that happens as soon as conflict or instability takes hold, yet it is usually the last thing to be taken into account by those ending wars or rebuilding nations.

"Over 140 countries will be present [at the June summit], alongside NGOs and faith leaders, where we will focus on the role of faith communities in tackling sexual violence in conflict. I want the summit to be the moment that the world wakes up and says that rape and sexual violence are not an inevitable part of war."

THIS level of awareness was not always present. For many years, the Church as an institution remained virtually silent on the subject of sexual violence.

A report published by Tearfund in 2011, Silent No More, found that in Rwanda, Liberia, and the DRC, the Church was not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

The report quoted one survivor of sexual violence from the DRC: "Religious institutions are undermining women. They do not see women as important, and they do not see a role for them."

A key problem is the stigma that attaches to women who have been raped. An element of blame persists, or, at the least, uncleanness, and many find it impossible to attract a husband.

Tearfund's research suggested that either clergy were not speaking out about the evil of rape, or they were themselves contributing to the stigma surrounding victims of it.

Enlightenment has come slowly. Charlotte Simon, the founder of the anti-rape charity Mothers of Congo, said: "As Christians, we should be denouncing what is happening in Congo. The Church is the institution we rely on to help us, but it has let us down. I think of Jesus looking down and saying 'Why?'

"What I really want is for the Church to come out and start raising awareness; to say: 'What is happening in Congo is wrong.' [Otherwise], the Church is an accomplice."

This is now beginning to happen. In February, the Archbishop of Canterbury visited a project backed by Tearfund in Goma, DRC, which seeks to change the culture around survivors of sexual violence (News, 14 February).

Speaking during the same visit, the Archbishop of Congo, the Most Revd Henri Isingoma, said: "This is a priority issue for my Church, and for me personally."

That same month, the General Synod, meeting in London, held a debate on gender-based violence, before carrying a motion condemning such violence as an abuse and violation of the image of God (Synod digest, 21 February).

One member, Dr Paula Gooder, told the Synod that the Church needed to recognise how its own tradition and theology had been used to support violence against women.

Another speaker, Canon Rosie Harper, said that "God told us to do it" was often given as a justification for gender-based violence. Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, she urged the Synod not to sit on the fence: "Not to speak is to speak; not to act is to act."

Many campaigners have said that the Church had a unique and pivotal part to play in tackling rape and sexual violence. Mr Grant, from Restored, said: "The Church has got a huge amount to contribute here, to make it clear that this is not consistent with scripture."

Ms Reilly, of We Will Speak Out, agreed: "In Africa, the Church doesn't just have a large reach - it is also a trusted centre-point in communities. Often, what the Church says goes; so they have a platform within the community to address some of the challenging issues, but also to speak openly about the issue."

Mr Hague said this week that the support of local Christian leaders was hugely significant: "Faith groups have a key role to play. I was incredibly pleased to hear the announcement by the Archbishop of the DRC, whom I met last year, that he and the DRC's major faith leaders had pledged to take action to prevent sexual violence in their We Will Speak Out campaign."

BEYOND raising awareness, what action should the Church take to try to end these crimes? Campaigners say that it is difficult to pinpoint specific tactics, as the problem is so complex.

Mr Grant asked: "What would it take to stop a soldier in Congo from raping a woman? It's not an easy answer. A whole raft of cultural factors, societal norms, and military discipline. There has got to be accountability, and an end to impunity.

"But at the same time, you need religious leaders speaking out, saying that this is morally unacceptable."

For Mrs Simon from Mothers of Congo, the scourge of rape will never leave the DRC until the underlying drivers of the conflict are addressed.

She said: "I think the West needs to change the way the big [mining] companies are doing this. They find a village where the minerals are. They tell the militias to go to this village and rape and kill and just create chaos. Then they use it as a mine."

Minerals such as coltan, mined from violently disputed regions of the DRC, are an integral part of electronic devices. Mrs Simon believes that the Church should look at cutting these out of the supply chain, as a means of ending the rape which is associated with mining.

"Everybody has a piece of Congo in their pocket, but at what price? Every time I pick up my phone, or watch my TV, I think: 'I have blood on my hands,'" she said.

The Mothers' Union also works alongside churches in Africa to tackle rape.

A spokeswoman said this week: "In our experience, one of the strongest ways in which the Church is able to offer support is to actually accompany survivors as they access services, such as any police and health-care professionals in the area, to ensure that they remain safe and supported."

The Mothers' Union has also initiated literacy and numeracy programmes in Rwanda, aimed at empowering victims to discuss gender-based violence, besides giving them skills to help them move on in life.

We Will Speak Out has a five-point plan to combat sexual violence, Ms Reilly said. Besides raising awareness, the plan ensures that churches must be used as safe and stigma-free spaces for survivors of sexual violence.

The problem of stigma comes up time and time again in conversations. One way churchpeople are seeking to eliminate this is by demonstrating that victims of sexual violence are still worthy of love and dignity.

Ms Ntububa, from Christian Aid, described how women from Congolese churches often welcomed rape survivors into their own homes. "They have been telling women: 'This is not your fault.'"

Alongside its advocacy work, Mothers of Congo is supporting almost 100 children born of rape in the DRC. "Nobody wants to know about them, and they have no future," Mrs Simon said. "We want to give them a future and confidence in themselves."

"We are also getting international funding for church hospitals, run by local churchpeople," Ms Ntububa said. "The Church is playing a major role both in helping women and working on protection. The next challenge is how to make justice, which is difficult."

ANOTHER part of the solution is transforming masculinity, and challenging perceptions about what it means to be a "real man".

Mr Grant said: "We have a campaign in the UK called First Man Standing, which challenges men to respect women. We are looking at how to contextualise that kind of approach in a range of different countries. We have got to work with 'good' men, but also with the perpetrators.

"The whole issue is about relationships, the image of God, and being created male and female. Relationships are the core of the gospel. It's right at the start of what the Church should be speaking out and responding to."

An entire chapter of a 229-page 2010 World Council of Churches report into the theology of masculinity dealt with gender-based violence. In her introduction to the chapter, the Revd Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth explained what was at the heart of the attempt to co-opt men into the campaign against sexual violence.

She wrote: "Men need to redefine masculinity and create a social climate, in male peer culture, in which the abuse of women is seen as completely unacceptable."

In the DRC, the Church has started to act as a bridge between victims and perpetrators, who now tend to be members of local militias rather than foreign fighters.

Ms Ntububa said: "The Church has been making the community more aware of how we can have a dialogue, and ask [the rapists] 'How are you behaving like that? These women could be your mothers, or daughters, or sisters.'"

The idea that, at the heart of sexual violence in conflict, is the broken relationship between men and women is central to Restored's work, which has developed programmes in the UK to tackle rape and domestic violence.

"It would be wrong and very misleading to [describe it] as an African problem. The danger is a demonising of African society as being fundamentally prone to sexual violence while European peoples are not," Mr Grant said.

"The underlying drivers of violence against women are abuse, power, and control. Rape is not a matter of sex, but a matter of power. It aims to destroy people and societies. It is obviously a different level of severity, and I wouldn't equate it [with sexual violence in the West]. . . But the issues in domestic violence are also power and control."

Ms Reilly agreed: it was important to recognise that sexual violence occurred in conflict in other parts of the world, too. "Rape is used as a weapon of war in any context - certainly in Syria, but also in Bosnia and other areas around the world," she said.

Similarly, the impetus to resist sexual violence is coming not just from well-meaning Western Churches. "In our experience, there are a lot of amazing church leaders from [Africa] who are aware that it is an issue, and are speaking out. They often work with us. It is coming from the grassroots, and they just need support, training, and resources, to help them deliver their message.

"We want to empower survivors to advocate for their own rights, and work with faith leaders to lobby at a national and international level."

IT IS clear, then, that sexual violence as a part of conflict is now firmly on the Church's agenda. But it is clear, too, to all the campaigners, that the battle is far from won.

Mr Grant said that, while it was good that momentum was growing, Restored had only begun to scratch the surface of the problem.

As the conflict in DRC degenerates further, Ms Ntububa said that rape was becoming a part of life for some women: "In many communities, men can come and rape at any time. There is no protection mechanism. For them, that's normal.

"There is a good level of recognition [of the problem], but in terms of ending this, we are not at that point yet. It is now 20 years after the Rwandan genocide, and this is still happening in Rwanda."

But Ms Reilly said she had seen signs of hope. "Just last week, I was visiting some programmes in Burundi and speaking to church leaders there. There are some fantastic stories coming from communities and countries where the Church has been mobilised."

For Mrs Simon, of Mothers of Congo, there is just a steady determination to carry on the battle. "I have cried so much," she said. "I'm not going to cry any more. Now I'm just fighting."

ONE church-backed project in the DRC is the United Women for Peace and Social Promotion (UFPPS), set up by the Anglican Church of the Congo. The aim of the ministry is to restore to Congolese women their espoir de vivre - "hope for life".

Part of their work is to raise awareness of anti-rape laws, and to try to end a culture of impunity for rapists and helplessness for victims.

United Women also works to ensure that women reach a health-centre no more than 72 hours after an attack to receive preventative treatment for HIV. The Archbishop of Congo, the Most Revd Henri Isingoma, says, however, that limited finances mean that not all women can be treated. Obstacles include a lack of qualified counsellors, insufficient medical facilities, an ineffective legal system, and a lack of transport for get-ting women to health centres quickly.

The programme attempts to leverage the moral capital of the Church against the perpetrators of violence and to defeat stigma. Churches are encouraged to use biblical teaching to transform prevalent views about women.

To tackle the isolation of many rape victims, United Women also provides clothing, micro-finance, and counselling. And it organises seminars on women's rights and reconciliation in order to challenge the stigma surrounding rape.

The Revd Dr Nyambura Njoroge writes on the gender debate in Africa -  Teaching men all about women

Restored - Ending Violence Against Women

We Will Speak Out

Christian Aid

Mothers of Congo

Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

Silent No More - Tearfund report

Created in God's Image - World Council of Churches and World Communion of Reformed Churches report 

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