The Common Good

The DRC: The Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a beautiful, lush country, with fertile soil and rich minerals. But it has suffered from an ongoing civil war that is fueled by greed and corruption and inflamed by outside forces that exploit the DRC's natural resources at the expense of the Congolese people.

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Since 1998, more than 5 million Congolese have died, making this the deadliest conflict since World War II. Millions more have been forced to flee from their homes and now live in makeshift tents in crude refugee camps. In addition, thousands of women and girls have been brutally raped as soldiers use women's bodies as a battlefield where the goal is to destroy the stability of a village by destroying the bodies and spirits of its women. While rape has often been used as a weapon of war, never has it been used as freely and brutally as in the DRC.

In a refugee camp near Goma, in eastern Congo, I talked through a translator with a woman named Charlene. After her husband was murdered by rebel soldiers, she and her eight children fled for their lives, walking for days to reach the camp. The hundreds of widows in the camp were given a small portion of food, but not enough to live on, so they went daily into the woods to collect firewood to sell. They knew soldiers waited in the woods to rape them, but in order to feed their children they had to take the risk.

A strong woman herself, Charlene had chosen to be a voice for her voiceless sisters who had been raped, and the stories she told broke our hearts.

But as we got ready to leave, she told one more story, this time without words. As I started to get in the car to leave, she stopped me and showed me a 2-week-old baby --- and I realized immediately that it was her baby. She was one of the women who had been raped, and this was the child born of that rape.

Two days later I spoke with Regina, an older woman who had been raped in her own home by soldiers who murdered her grown son when he tried to protect her. Left unconscious and bleeding, Regina awoke the next day in a hospital. Not only had she lost her son, but in a country where survivors of sexual violence are often treated more like criminals than victims, she knew she would face a lifetime of stigma and shame. As she wept, she begged God to let her die.

But God chose life, not death, for Regina. A woman visited her and told her about a group of church volunteers committed to helping women like Regina heal. When Regina left the hospital, the group found a safe place for her to live and provided for ongoing medical treatment. They invited her to a weekly support group where she could grieve, talk about what had happened to her, and do sewing projects to earn money. "They gave me back my life," she said. "I wanted to die, but they helped me want to live again."

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a failed state -- a country with no rule of law, where men can rape with impunity, where neither government nor police provide protection for the vulnerable. In this situation, there truly is no institution for people to turn to but the church. In many difficult places I've seen local churches living out God's love, but I have never seen more heroic servants of God than I saw in the DRC.

The church leaders who created the support groups for victimized women were inspired and empowered by World Relief's Gender-Based Violence (GBV) program, focused on psycho-social support, awareness, and advocacy. If you'd like to help women like Charlene and Regina, check out Ten for Congo, a grassroots movement to support World Relief's GBV program -- an important way to help churches in the DRC be God's agent of healing for the most vulnerable women on earth.

Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don't Change the World. This article first appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine.

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