LIVING IN FEAR

LIVING IN FEAR

The conflict may be ending, but women and girls in the Congo still face violence

SAMANTHA NUTT February 16 2004
LIVING IN FEAR

LIVING IN FEAR

The conflict may be ending, but women and girls in the Congo still face violence

SAMANTHA NUTT February 16 2004

LIVING IN FEAR

War

The conflict may be ending, but women and girls in the Congo still face violence

SAMANTHA NUTT

More than five years of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo have resulted in an estimated 3.3 million deaths—making it the deadliest conflict in African history. Now, even as hostilities are coming to an end in most parts of the country, obstacles remain on the road to peace and security. In this second and final instalment from the Congo, Dr. Samantha Nutt of War Child Canada examines some of the challenges facing Congolese women and girls.

THE GIRLS, a dozen of them, cover their mouths when they giggle and nudge each other under the table as I encourage them to write their names. On the school blackboard, all the vowels of the alphabet run together in delicate feminine calligraphy. One girl picks up my knapsack, slings it over her shoulder, and struts around the room doing her best muzungu (Swahili for white person) impersonation. She pretends to be very important, compulsively checking a make-believe wristwatch, a performance that evokes squeals of delight from her peers. Sister Nathalina, a diminutive Italian with silver hair and oversized glasses, commands the girls’ attention with a resolute “Ça suffif ’ (that’s enough). She is not humourless, but she does mean business.

The girls are clever, colourful and inquisitive—everything you’d expect from eightto 12-year-olds. But what makes them extraordinary is that they’ve been forced to find refuge in this children’s orphanage in the eastern town of Bukavu because they are believed to be witches. Giselle Esabana is 11. She is proud to show that she can print her name almost perfectly, but otherwise rarely makes eye contact. On Christmas Eve, 2002, her mother passed away. Her father remarried. Giselle’s new stepmother found fault with everything she did—she didn’t help enough with the cooking or cleaning, she was easily distracted, she wasn’t as useful in the fields as her brothers. She was the last one in the family allowed to eat at meals and quickly became malnourished. Eventually, her stepmother accused her of using sorcery to kill her mother, and of plotting to do the same to her.

Giselle was taken to a traditional healer specializing in the occult. For several days she was kept in isolation with no food or water, her hands roped behind her back. Eventually, she managed to flee, and was picked up by the police, who delivered her to the orphanage. “The girls know what they have been accused of, and come to believe that perhaps they are responsible for these things— a death in the family, disease, poverty,” says Sister Nathalina, who runs the orphanage. “So we reinforce that this is simply not the case. Most of the girls are rejected by their families for predictable reasons: for example, the father remarries and the new wife doesn’t accept the daughter, or some have behavioural problems or learning disabilities. Witchcraft is an easy excuse to get rid of them.”

mmmm g ■■ gw I HtKb are banners strung over some roads that say: ‘Raping a woman is the same as raping your own mother’

While there are no official numbers of Congolese girls accused of witchcraft, the United Nations estimates that as many as 60 per cent of children in shelters were forced from their homes due to allegations of sorcery. Similarly, hundreds of adult women branded as “witches” by their family members or communities are incarcerated every year. And while belief in the occult has existed in the Congo for generations, sources say the number of individuals—mostly female-labelled as witches has increased dramatically since the country’s civil war began in 1997. In many instances, those females are scapegoats, says Sister Nathalina: “They become the reason for the poverty and death experienced by the family, when the family should be blaming the war.” Violence against women is also widespread in a country where a half-decade of conflict has broken down social norms. Marriette and Aline are 15 and 17 respectively, and currently undergoing a skills-training program for illiterate girls in Bukavu. Marriette, wearing a red and white sun hat and mudstained woollen sweater, rushes into the room and wraps her arms around my waist. Aline, her tiny frame covered by a white oversized shirt, sombrely shuffles in and drops into a chair. Marriette begins to tell her story even before I have the chance to introduce myself.

Her mother was killed in the war. Her father remarried, and the stepmother mistreated her. There was little food, and as the only girl Marriette was forced to go into town to beg for herself and her four brothers. One day, when she was 13, four militia soldiers attacked her on the road near her rural home. She was gang-raped to the point of unconsciousness. “When I awoke,” she says, “I was bleeding. It wouldn’t stop. An old woman came to help me; she boiled water, cleaned me up and sent me home.” Several months later, she was raped again. Instead of returning home after that assault, she went to Bukavu and took up residence in a local orphanage.

Aline was raped a month ago. “In December, I was very sick with malaria,” she says. “My mother gave me money to go to the clinic. Along the road, three young men grabbed me from behind, and one held my feet while the others raped me. When I kicked, they cut my feet with a hunting knife.” She takes off her running shoes to show me the thick scar that runs from behind her left ankle across her foot, stopping short of her big toe. The wound was so deep that she was unable to walk; eventually, a group of students found her and carried her home.

She hasn’t yet sought treatment for the rape because her family can’t afford the roughly $10 needed to test her for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. UNICEF estimates that the prevalence of HIV infection in the Congo may be as high as 20 per cent— both girls admit they worry daily about the possibility that they may be infected. But Marriette, who would like to become a nun, says she’d prefer not to know. Aline, though, would like to get married and have children, and knows this will not be possible until she can prove she is “clean.”

Local non-governmental organizations, international humanitarian agencies and hospitals in the Congo are all reporting staggering numbers of rapes. Some aid agencies estimate that as many as one in three females may be victims. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a charity that funds sexual assault treatment programs at Panzi hospital in Bukavu, says that rape cases range from babies to frail women in their 80s. Some victims have been raped and tortured in front of their families. In addition to the risk of infection and the psychological trauma, the stigma attached to rape often means that women will face rejection in their homes, perpetuating a cycle of destitution and despair. And the extreme violence of some of the rapes leaves many women with vaginal fistulas—a condition where the walls between the vagina, rectum and bladder are destroyed, and which requires exhaustive and painful reparative surgery. Few regions of the Congo have gynecologists trained in such procedures, leaving victims with no alternative but to hope that someday they’ll receive help.

“The war certainly increased the level of violence and brutality directed at Congolese women,” says Stephanie Desnoyers, a Canadian with the IRC who provides support and training to local women working with rape victims. “The rapes started with the war, as a way for rival militias to threaten and demoralize communities that they believe supported the other side. Also, we are seeing many more rapes now because we are able to access communities that were previously closed because of the war, so many women are only now able to come forward. And as the peace process moves forward, and former militiamen are demobilized and move back into the communities, there is little for them to do, putting women at increased risk.”

In the Congo’s male-dominated society, women face other problems as well. In Goma, along the Rwandan border, I meet Wimaha Furaha, a 21-year-old widow with two young children. A year ago her husband was killed in a car accident. Her fatherin-law told her to many one of his other sons. When she refused, she was kicked out of her home and told never to return. With no food or clothing for herself or her children, Wimaha returned to the house one evening to tty to convince her father-in-law to let her keep a few of her things. He sent a neighbour to fetch the police, and Wimaha was arrested on the spot and thrown in jail.

The police told her that as a woman she was not entitled to any of her husband’s property—but for a fee of $50 they would be happy to release her. “What could I do?” she asks me, nursing her youngest child. “I had nothing. The war has done this to people. If you are a woman you are worthless—they can just throw you away and no one cares.” Wimaha was finally released with the help of a local legal aid group, the Association for the Defence of Human Rights. Among other cases the organization has dealt with are women imprisoned for crimes that include “bad debt,” the theft of a litre of fuel, prostitution and witchcraft.

Efforts are underway to try to stop the violence and improve the lives of Congolese women. Several international aid agencies have launched programs to support victims of sexual abuse in partnership with local women’s groups. There are also attempts to raise public awareness: banners have been strung on the main streets of Bukavu that say, “Raping a woman is the same as raping your own mother.” The message is aimed at men, but as the Congo struggles to put aside the degradation of war, too many are not listening. I?]