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DR-CONGO: How Many More Will Be Raped?

Nergui Manalsuren

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 12 2009 (IPS) - As people around the world celebrate their loved ones on Valentine’s Day weekend, activists are working to ensure that the ongoing horrors of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are not forgotten.

Eve Ensler and Dr. Denis Mukwege Credit: Paula Allen

Eve Ensler and Dr. Denis Mukwege Credit: Paula Allen

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands women and girls have been brutally raped in the DRC, primarily by rebel groups vying over control of land and mineral resources.

More than five million people have been killed in the civil war following the overthrow of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. The United Nations’ largest-ever peacekeeping force of 17,000 has been in the DRC since 2000. However, it is a vast country the size of Western Europe, and with few roads.

A year ago, rebel groups signed a peace treaty with an ineffective DRC government accused of corruption and complicit in the rape of women. Despite the treaty, thousands of women and young girls in the eastern Congo have been raped in the region that borders Rwanda and Uganda where coltan and other valuable minerals are found.

Large-scale fighting resumed last July, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

This week, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and the V-Day campaign launched a five-city ‘Turning Pain to Power Tour’, starting at U.N. headquarters in New York City and going on to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington, DC.

Participants include Eve Ensler, the founder of V-Day and ‘The Vagina Monologues’ playwright, and Dr. Denis Mukwege, director and founder of Panzi General Referral Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu province in the DRC, who won the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights for 2008.

The joint initiative hopes to develop the “City of Joy”, a village for rape survivors in Bukavu, an area described by the head of UNICEF, Ann Veneman, as a place where “no one is safe”.

“Simple everyday tasks like gathering water, fetching water, expose these women and children to a great danger,” Veneman told reporters Wednesday.

“I’ve heard him [Mukwege] say before that sometimes women dragged themselves to the hospital, being left to death in the villages or the forest. And he told me that one of the things he has to do is to treat them for malnutrition before even beginning to operate on them because they were so weakened because of being just left with no one,” she said.

The V-Day initiative was first launched in November 2007, and has found support in 60 countries.

Mukwege said that the campaign is very important to give hope to Congolese women and his hospital because they have endured this horrific situation for over 10 years, appealing repeatedly for help from politicians and the international community.

“But sometimes it seems that ears are closed, and so we’ve been wondering: is it because these are women, and do we need men to start being killed so that other men will react?” asked Mukwege, who performs at least 10 fistula operations a day.

Asked how many women he’s been able to treat so far, he said the number was approximately 24,000. Even more need surgery, but the hospital has a limited capacity.

“Our hospital only can handle 10 surgeries a day, so while we don’t know the exact number, the list of untreated women is long. We need to build five to six new facilities in the region,” he told IPS.

Mukwege believes the number of women who have been raped since the beginning of the conflict is far higher than the U.N. estimates of 200,000-300,000, saying the real figure is more like half a million.

He also stressed the importance of both psychological and physical treatment. “We have about a dozen psychologists on hand to treat the women, but our goal is to train a team of 300 psychological experts to work with the women in the field and really be able to track their progress for the long term,” Mukwege told IPS.

“There needs to be judicial system put in place so that rapists can be apprehended and tried and held accountable,” he added.

Ensler hopes that the five-city tour will be a wake-up call for the U.S. government and citizens about what is going on in DRC. Violence against women is everyone’s struggle, she stressed. “It is not particularly an African thing, or a DRC thing – it’s a worldwide epidemic,” the activist said.

However, Ensler, who has traveled to eastern DRC, said that what she saw and experienced there convinced her that it is, without doubt, the worst situation of violence against women in the world today.

Asked whether the United Nations is doing enough, the V-Day founder said that the U.N. is moving towards understanding the centrality of violence against women, but has not yet made it a priority in terms of action.

“I think there’s an enormous amount of protocol around it, and all kinds of 1325s and 1820s [Security Council resolutions], but very often they are not applied. And, I think we’re still living in very patriarchic institution that hasn’t come to understand the importance of women and the role of women in the world,” Ensler told IPS.

She urged a fundamental shift at the U.N. to put more women in positions of power so that they have a voice in driving change, and forging a future where women have equal opportunities.

“I think that we need to keep building the women’s movement and help them to become more and more powerful,” she told IPS.

“For example, we all benefit from the resources of the Congo in the West. We use cell phones, Play Stations – we have blood on our hands essentially, so part of it is waking up the populations to understand that,” Ensler said.

Coltan, for example, is a rare and extremely valuable metal used in mobile phones, DVD players, computers, digital cameras, video games, vehicle air bags, and more. It has long been implicated as both the source of funding and primary cause of the ongoing conflict and extraordinary violence against women.

Ensler said a key goal this year is to raise the funds to continue the V-Day campaign.

“The campaign all in all is about four million dollars, and that’s for the City of Joy and the campaign itself. So far we’re doing very well, but people need to contribute more,” she told IPS.

V-Day says that this year, 4,000 events will take place in 1,400 places that will be focusing on women of the Congo, as well as 600 teach-ins.

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