5 January 2018

Congo-Kinshasa: In the World's Most Neglected Humanitarian Crisis, the Stigma of Rape Is Ruining Women's Lives

Photo: CR / John Wessels
Congolese family fleeing ethnic violence in Kamonia, Kasai province

It's a quiet morning at a village health centre in Kasai. Outside the window, the grass is long and a brilliant shade of green. Recent rains have been generous to this region in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo. To the unknowing visitor, it's as if nothing has happened here.

But Kasai is home to what aid agencies said was 2017's most neglected humanitarian crisis. Over the past 17 months, a brutal conflict in this part of DRC has uprooted more than 1.4 million people. Human rights abuses, including sexual violence, were inflicted on innocent civilians.

Once the violence subsided and people started returning home, CARE International carried out a needs assessment, to which 100 per cent of respondents reported incidents of rape in their communities.

One woman I spoke with told me she had been raped by 15 armed men.

Sitting across from me is Marie*. When the fighting erupted she fled with her family to the bush. After three days, fighting stopped and they returned home only to flee when it began again - a cycle that became known to many.

At one point when Marie was home during a lull in fighting, she was followed from the market by an armed man. He forced his way into the family home and raped her. When her husband returned and Marie told him what had happened, he gathered their five children and left for Mbuji Mayi, the provincial capital four hours away. She has not seen them since.

Cultural norms in this part of DRC dictate that a woman must not have sex outside marriage. If she has extra-marital sex, she is required to pay compensation to her husband's family, either in the form of cash or household items such as a bottle of palm oil. Once the transaction is completed, family life returns to how it was.

Although she was raped, Marie doesn't blame her husband for her current circumstances. "It's for him to blame me," she says. With no job and now living with her brother and his family, Marie cannot pay the compensation required to get her family back. Her greatest fear is that her husband will take another wife.

Marie is not the first woman to tell me her story, and her circumstances are all too familiar.

Twenty-one-year-old Monica* lives with her father, a diamond trader, and two younger brothers. Monica stopped school after her mother died, and now keeps house for her father.

Like Marie, Monica and her family fled to the bush when fighting began. One afternoon, while searching for water, Monica came across an armed man. "He said if I didn't go with him, he would kill me," she said. The man forced her into an isolated clearing and raped her.

Monica and her family are home again now, but her life is changed forever. "My father is always telling me I should have let the man kill me," she says. In his eyes, Monica has brought shame to the family and her chances of finding a husband are now almost negligible.

Neighbours don't to speak to her but they speak - loudly - about her, blaming her for what happened. Yet Monica and Marie are lucky in some respects.

For many survivors of sexual violence in Kasai, medical services are not available. But both Monica and Marie were able to access healthcare in their villages. CARE is training staff to support survivors of sexual violence.

Not only were Monica and Marie given medical treatment, they were also given psychosocial support - both rare in a health system struggling to provide even the most basic of services. CARE has also trained volunteers to spread the word about where to access these confidential services.

The services we've provided have made a tiny drop in a vast ocean and it's not nearly enough. And it is likely the DRC crisis will worsen in 2018, pushing more and more displaced people into neighbouring countries that are already absorbing refugees from other countries in the region.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Sally Cooper is media and communications specialist at CARE International.

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