US Secretary of State John Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, and Angelina Jolie at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Image via Flickr user Foreign Office
After four years being passed through armed groups in the depths of the Congolese jungle, used as a sex slave and maid, 15-year-old Faida's rescuers finally came, but she didn't want to leave. "I was very scared at the beginning, but after a while I got used to it," she said. "I thought it was a normal situation."
That was four years ago. Last week Faida Kasi Lenbo, now a dressmaker and a campaigner for Save the Children, met Angelina Jolie and British Foreign Secretary William Hague at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, in London. "William Hague told me he would do his best to help abuse stop in my country," she said afterward. "I hope they do what they have promised."
Hague and his US counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, were among 70 ministers who gathered in London to address this kind of horrible violence and launch an international protocol for bringing perpetrators to justice. The summit created "an army," Hague said, "united with the common vision of ending war-zone rape and sexual violence, and now it has been put together this army is not going to be disbanded."
Faida is now one of the voices rallying that army, but it has been a long and painful road for the 19-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where sexual violence is endemic in its decades-long conflict. In 2010 Margot Wallström, then the UN Special Representative on sexual violence in conflict, declared the DRC the "rape capital of the world," which is probably the absolute worst title for any country, ever. Since then, the number of reported sexual violence cases has climbed, according to UN data.
Kidnapped at the age of 11 from her aunt's house, Faida watched as her abductors killed her three siblings, shooting two and stabbing the third. Hauled into the night, she found herself in the hands of a local militia or "Mai Mai," the personal slave of a commander who regularly raped and beat her.
"He used me, he gave me a lot of work to do, and he raped me," she said, describing how she was made to sleep in his bed. "He was over 50 years old."
He wasn't the only one. Once he tired of using her as his personal plaything, he passed her around to others, Faida said. Later she fell into the possession of different militia. Sold or captured in battle, she was used as a sex slave by no less than five groups during her four-year captivity.
Faida Kasi Lenbo. Image courtesy of Save the Children
She feared for her life, she said. "I saw children being used like maids and servants, made to kill people, to steal."
"The day we released Faida, we released 17 girls," explained Murhabazi Namegabe, the director of the Congolese NGO BVES, who negotiated her freedom. "Faida was the most affected, the most traumatized. She said to me that she was mad. 'Where do you want to take me? I'm no longer a girl, I'm not a boy, and I no longer have any family,' she said. 'I have been raped by battalions of people, so now where do you want to take me?' She was more in a rage than the commanders of the groups who had been using her."
Unsurprisingly, her rehabilitation has been difficult. She has received psychological treatment and education and training as a seamstress. But like most of the girls the NGO works with, she has been "marked for life" by her ordeal. "The impact is permanent in psychological terms," Murhabazi said.
Social stigma complicates the process of reintegrating girls back into their communities. In Faida's case, the NGO has been unable to trace her parents. Eventually it tracked down an older sister, with whom she now lives in a house built by the NGO in the eastern city of Bukavu. But even that relationship proved difficult to re-establish, Murhabazi said. "Sometimes she didn't even know who her big sister was."
In the DRC, the conflict—stoked by a race for its mineral resources—has claimed some 6 million lives since 1996 and seen sexual violence systematically used as a weapon of war. According to the Enough Project, a US-based NGO, rape in warfare in the DRC “exists on a scale seen nowhere else."
At the summit, Zainab Bangura, Wallström's successor, stressed that not letting perpetrators get away with it was one of the keys to ending the crimes. "There will be no hiding place and no safe haven. Sooner or later, we will get you," she said. In the DRC, she added, the government was doing what it could but like in many conflict-ridden countries was being hampered by a lack of infrastructure.
The response? The United Nations has set up mobile courts, she explained. The initiative allows survivors to access justice in even the most remote of areas, according to the UN. Meanwhile, police, the judiciary, and military are being trained in handling sexual-violence cases. A dedicated police unit has been established and the UN has helped set up nine clinics offering not only medical assistance but a legal aid service to inform women of their rights and assist them in filing complaints. More than 700 UN-monitored cases were heard in 2011 and 2012, with a conviction rate of 60 percent. Those cases are just the start, however.
Securing evidence is always a problem, one that the international protocol for handling sexual violence cases is aimed at addressing. It provides a clear framework and guidance on things like interviewing survivors and collecting physical evidence. Britain and the US have also stepped up the amount of cash they're giving training initiatives for authorities in the prevention of and response to abuses.
While those commitments have been welcomed by NGOs and activists, they are very aware that there's a difference between making a framework that exists only only paper and actually applying it in real life. The final summit report noted that "good laws and international agreements in themselves are not enough if attitudes don't change." A key step toward making that shift was women's participation in decision making, Hague said, insisting that when it came to peace talks in conflicts, there was "no excuse" for excluding women from the negotiating table.
Murhabazi Namegabe, director of BVES. Image courtesy of Save the Children
Back in the DRC, it is not just the country's array of militia groups who are accused of such abuses—members of the armed forces have also been implicated.
"Children are systematically recruited and used by all parties in the conflict," Murhabazi said. While the boys were used as child soldiers, the girls fell victim to what he called a "combat fetish"—fighters believe that having sexual relations with young girls "protects" them from the enemy.
His NGO had come across cases of girls as young as four who had been used sexually by commanders of armed groups, he said. Securing their release was a delicate and dangerous business. "Little girls like Faida, according to the terms they use in the field, they are 'the commanders' food.' And taking girls away from the table of these war chiefs is a question of life and death.
"Sometimes armed groups try to kill us, sometimes we are imprisoned," he said. "Sometimes they tell us, 'We are going to free the children, but you are going to become fighters.' So it's very risky." The group would often leave without any children, but it would come back again and again, he continued. "We succeed, but it requires determination and exceptional courage, and from there we get this strength which allows us to do it." He has been imprisoned several times and had his life threatened. Currently, he is under military protection.
Faida is still haunted by fear as a result of her years of trauma. "I try to forget it," she said, before adding, "I will never forget it." But she was gratified last week to use her experience in the fight to stop the rape of women and children in the DRC and other conflict zones. "I feel very peaceful, and safe. I feel I am achieving something and am very proud."
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