AN EMERGENCY appeal for the thousands of women and girls affected by endemic sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been launched by the charity Tearfund.
It is estimated that up to 1.8 million women in the country have experienced conflict-related violence, and that thousands more are added every day. Tearfund is urging people to fund its work, empowering communities to support survivors and tackle the “harmful social norms” that are among the causes of the violence.
Although the civil war officially ended in 2003, conflict persists in the east, where violence is “rampant” and “mindless”, and includes the rape of children and babies, the head of the charity’s sexual violence team, Veena O’Sullivan, says.
In an area where the government barely exists, let alone infrastructure, hope is to be found in the Church, she says, and in partnerships between survivors and church leaders. Tearfund is working with communities to empower the former and encourage the latter to use their influence. “When they understand what is going on, and have a sense of gender justice, it is very powerful, because they can do so much more than what an external NGO or government can do. They can rally people together, and help reshape attitudes.”
Describing the changes that are under way — “real pockets of light” — Mrs O’Sullivan spoke of the importance of listening, first, to the stories of women and girls. “Time and time again, their priorities are around the same thing: they wish they could have run into the church and found safety; they wish their church leaders understood and spoke out.”
Work is now beginning on exploring attitudes and beliefs about gender, including studying what the Bible says, and untangling this from cultural norms. This is undertaken in community conversations with both men and women. Through this process, “gender champions” are identified.
Mrs O’Sullivan describes one strand of this work as “transforming masculinity”: exploring what it means to be a man and a husband. It is “healthy and wonderful” for men to talk about such things, “as that is not part of the culture”. Conflict leaves men “disenfranchised”, she says. Unable to provide or protect their family, they fear that they will lose the respect of their wives, and have described how they used violence to demonstrate their residual power.
Some have described feeling “conflicted” about the way they treated their wives: church teaching about being the head of the household encouraged them to “show my power to my wife”.
Tearfund is also supporting church leaders in making their places of worship places of refuge. This could range from enabling survivors to meet in churches, to leaders accompanying victims of violence to clinics.
Mrs O’Sullivan’s concern is that the focus of Western governments has shifted to other parts of the world, leaving those trying to improve lives in sub-Saharan Africa struggling for funds. She urges people to remember that “We are part of one body. . . It would be wonderful to act like that, and remember the people in DRC. . . A little bit goes such a long way.”