March 8 was designated as International Women’s Day by the United Nations in 1975. While the world has seen significant progress in rights and empowerment for women and girls, sexual and gender-based violence still touches every part of the globe and is tragically widespread in some areas. Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo face shockingly high rates of rape, including reports of mass rapes by soldiers, especially in the conflict-ridden province of Kivu. One Christian hospital, operated by the Free Methodist Church in the Nundu mission, works to treat injured women and heal psychological trauma.
Grace (not her real name) had spent the day working in the fields near her home in Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The 42-year-old mother was walking home with her two daughters, ages 20 and 16, when they were stopped by a group of 15 uniformed men. All three of the women were raped by the men and left with horrible injuries. They were brought to the Nundu Hospital, operated by the Free Methodist Church, where they received medical and psychological treatment for four weeks.
The Nundu Hospital identified 1754 survivors of sexual violence in 2012, and all but 98 of those were women or girls, according to Dr. Lubunga Eoba Samy, medical coordinator for the Free Methodist Church and coordinator of the hospital’s Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Project. This project aims to reduce the occurrence of sexual violence by promoting human rights, raising awareness and strengthening the capacity of community-based organizations to address the issue. It also includes training of local authorities and improving coordination among local non-governmental organizations.
“Uniformed men have long been suspected to account for the vast majority of the incidents of sexual violence in South Kivu,” Dr. Samy said. “This includes foreign armed groups, including the FDLR/Rasta [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda]; Congolese irregular groups; the national army [FARDC], and, increasingly, civilians, though many of these may be demobilized soldiers.”
Dr. Samy sees sexual violence as a weapon of war, since it aims to humiliate women, destroy their families and intimidate communities. However, he explains that over the last six years the proportion of rapes carried out by uniformed men has shifted and now sexual crimes are increasingly committed by civilians.
“It is verified by researchers that many conflict zones and countries in post-conflict transition experience much higher levels of domestic violence among civilians and continue to do so for a number of years after transitioning out of conflict,” he said. A report released by the United Nations in March 2010 confirms that gang rapes committed by men in uniform and civilians remain a serious concern in the DRC, even in areas not currently affected by armed conflict.
Unfortunately, according to Dr. Samy, prosecuting soldiers and other combatants implicated for crimes in the DRC is extremely difficult.
“Commanding officers often arrange for combatants accused of sexual violence to be quickly transferred elsewhere, making prosecution far more difficult and often impossible,” he said. “The reluctance to arrest fellow soldiers or to investigate them thoroughly continues into the trial process as well. Few of the cases that reach military court end in conviction, in part because those prosecuting are from the same institution as the accused.”
Fear of further attacks, stigma, and shame also keep victims from coming forward and accusing attackers.
“They have been told by authorities — usually men — to stay silent,” said Dr. Samy. “Women and girls who seek justice must have at least the cooperation, if not the support, of authorities.”
After receiving treatment and counseling at the hospital, Grace now serves as an educator in her community on sexual violence, and her two daughters returned to school with financial assistance from the project.
“The Christian and the church mission is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in order to save human beings from sin and all its consequences: hunger, sickness, ignorance, misery, and stigmatization; and to promote communal development for the spiritual and physical well-being of people,” said Dr. Samy. “The church cannot stay silent where a population is in trouble. That is why the Free Methodist Church works to give victims hope that these actions are not the end of life.”
We Will Speak Out
Another Christian organization, IMA World Health, has formed We Will Speak Out (US), a coalition of faith-based organizations and individuals dedicated to changing the culture of sexual and gender-based violence in the U.S. and around the world.
It's time to speak out against sexual and gender-based violence.
Kathy Erb is Communications Manager for Christian Connections for International Health. The Free Methodist Church Hospital in Nundu and IMA World Health are members of Christian Connections for International Health, a network of organizations and individuals promoting global health from a Christian perspective. CCIH will be examining the intersection between Christian perspectives and gender inequity, including what Christian groups can do to prevent sexual and gender-based violence at the CCIH Annual Conference in June 2013.