Voices

Sexual Violence Against Women Should Not Be Used as a Weapon of War

Meet the doctors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo trying to save the country's most targeted community.

by Alice Rowsome
Jan 26 2018, 6:30pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve heard of AK-47, drones, cluster bombs, chemical weapons and nukes. But there is one weapon, which doesn't get so much attention. It terrorizes, breaks up families, destroys communities, leaves physical scars inside women and at times infects them with HIV. It is often used in ‘ethnic cleansing’, rendering women of a targeted community incapable of bearing children. This weapon is rape. And for it to end, it needs some of the energy that the #MeToo movement has generated.

Sexual violence against women and girls is currently used as a weapon of war in numerous conflicts, including in South Sudan, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). And then some.

Dr Denis Mukwege, who is based in the DRC, is a Congolese gynaecologist. He founded and works at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where he specializes in the treatment of women who have been gang-raped by rebel forces.

Today approximately seventy armed groups are believed to be operating in the eastern region of the DRC (where Dr Mukwege works), their activities financed by the area’s rich natural resources. In addition to the violence caused by rebel-forces, the President Joseph Kabila caused more instability by postponing the scheduled 2016 election after his term ended, cracking down on internal dissent to further stay in power.

VICE Impact spoke to Mukwege to find out more about his work and how we can help him end the use of rape as a weapon of war.


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VICE Impact: How many women have you treated since you opened Panzi Hospital?

Dr Denis Mukwege: Between 1999 and 2016, we treated 50,731 victims of sexual violence.

Yet the women you treat are only the tip of the iceberg because many survivors are afraid to speak out. While women in the U.S have been saying #MeToo, speaking out in the DRC is a completely different matter. What risks do these women face when they speak out?

It's true, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. If victims speak out, they may be stigmatised and rejected by their families and communities.

In some rebel-controlled areas, victims and their families may be retaliated against. And if there is a pregnancy as a result of rape, the mother and baby and even the other children of the family, are rejected. 40 percent of victims who arrive at Panzi Hospital cannot return to their communities after medical treatment because of this stigma.

You don’t only treat the women’s physical scares. Can you tell us more about your four steps to healing?

At the outset, we provide medical assistance. Most of the women who arrive at Panzi Hospital have been gang-raped, therefore by several people, who each take turns. These are rapes of extreme violence. The biggest fear for these women is that they have been infected with sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. They first reach the medical pillar to have a check-up and if they are already sick, to receive treatment.

Once our patients are healed physically, they need psychological assistance. This is very important and should not be overlooked. For a quick recovery, it’s essential to give them psychological support.

Dr. Jill Biden talks with Dr. Denis Mukwege, Physician and Medical Director at the Panzi Hospital, in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s only once the women are doing well physically and psychologically that we begin the process of reintegration, both economic and societal. Victims of rape struggle to get accepted back into their community if they aren't autonomous. Our socio-economic reintegration teams study the needs of each victim; and these needs are often different. They then impose themselves back into the community with their know-how and skills. In most cases, it’s the community that needs them.

The ultimate need is the demand for justice. Panzi Foundation has teams of lawyers, lawyers who not only help these victims prepare their cases but also accompany the victims to courts and tribunals.

Rather than address what brings these women to your clinic, the government of the Congo has tried to cover up the atrocities. For example, in 2015 the government banned a film about you . Can you tell us more about the barriers you face in the DRC?

The Congolese government has chosen not to confront this tragic reality and as a consequence there is impunity, and abusers feel they are allowed to continue to rape.

The hospital itself is under constant threat. The staff at the hospital are threatened daily, some have even been raped. Even after they’d told the government they had been threatened, it failed to protect them.

On the administrative side, the government puts pressure on us. The aim: slow the hospital down by increasing the difficult working conditions for the hospital.

You are not only a doctor, you are an international advocate for survivors of gender-based violence, and fly across the U.S. and Europe to promote the cause. How can we better support your campaign?

We need a stronger response from Western countries. The international community must not remain silent and tolerate sexual violence. We need a stronger system to monitor and understand the violence in order to develop a comprehensive strategy to end it and support survivors.

You have previously said that such violence cannot be considered as just a women’s issue or a feminist issue. How can we broaden the conversation?

Men should not feel accused because they too are victims of sexual violence. It must be understood that sexual violence is the most effective weapon. It destroys physically, mentally and socially. It is a weapon that has consequences that are transmitted vertically on offsprings and horizontally on spouses.

To rape, a woman in front of her husband, her children, her community destroys all these people, who sometimes end up more traumatized than the direct victim herself. It's simply dehumanisation.

It must be understood that sexual violence is a global problem that affects all humanity, not just women. Men must be involved in support programs, healing processes, conversations and discussions.

To not deal with rape or to regard it as a problem of a category of people is to allow the evil to spread and let the evil destroy the common humanity we share.

How can our readers support your advocacy work?

Speak about it and raise awareness among your family and community. Women, for example, can talk about it with their male friends and husbands. They can involve men to put together silence on rape.

If you’d like to do something beyond #MeToo, visit #BreakTheSilence , Mukwege Foundation ’s advocacy platform. You can also take action to Stop Rape Now .

This interview was translated from French into English by the author and edited for clarity and brevity.

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