Trying to Cure Congo's Rape Epidemic; Soldiers Undergoing Drills on Sex Violence in a Culture That Often Shuns Female Victims

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

Trying to Cure Congo's Rape Epidemic; Soldiers Undergoing Drills on Sex Violence in a Culture That Often Shuns Female Victims


Byline: Betsy Pisik, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BUGERI, Congo -- On a recent rainy afternoon, 100 Congolese soldiers lined up in a shabby formation to participate in anti-rape sensitization training.

The recruits slouched and fiddled, listening to an audiotape of soldiers boasting after a gang rape and then pressuring a reluctant enlisted man to take his turn. Although the drama was scripted, it made for chilling listening for a group of women's health advocates, soldiers' wives and foreigners who had been invited to observe the exercise.

Afterward, an officer drilled his men on the dos and don'ts of sexual violence, including advice on how to treat their own wives and daughters and how to respect women in general.

It didn't seem to be much of a success.

What if my wife wants to have sex and I don't? asked a soldier who was applauded by his buddies for his cheekiness. Do your rules protect me, too?

Until the men of the Democratic Republic of the Congo begin to treat sensitivity courses as more than a joke or a tiresome obligation, it is doubtful that this nation will see a serious reduction in sexual crimes against women. The rape wave here has reached epidemic proportions, particularly in the eastern part of the country, jeopardizing the chances for recovery from more than a decade of civil war.

Just as men perpetrate sexual violence, men are the only ones who can stop it, said Joseph Ciza, who oversees programs for children including the victims of rape and the children of rape at Heal Africa, a local charity.

Maj. Jean-David Mwimba, battalion commander in the Bukavu suburb of Bugeri, acknowledged that rape is a problem in the country and said the military just reflects that.

He said he was satisfied with the hourlong sensitization training provided for his troops and wasn't concerned that so many of the soldiers put through the course seem to have missed the message.

It's like a school audience; they can't have the same level of sensitization, he told The Washington Times. They all had the same material. Some learn faster than others.

Although no one knows for sure how many rape victims there are in this country, the United Nations estimates that 200,000 women have been raped in the past decade and that 40 are raped each day just in the eastern region of South Kivu.

At the base of the epidemic is a culture that expects much from women but provides little in return.

While men predominate in the professions, the military and the government, women in rural areas appear to do all the work: tilling the fields, gathering firewood, cleaning homes, shopping for provisions, cooking meals and raising children.

The majority of village men seem to lift nothing heavier than a cigarette lighter. But without their support and respect for women, observers say, the cycle of violence and abandonment will never be broken.

Men shun wives, sisters and daughters who have been raped, accusing them of being unfaithful or bringing home HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

If I keep [my wife] after the rape, the neighbors will think we are having sex, said one of the Bugeri soldiers. And that I have the AIDS, too. The culture says if she has sex with another man, I must send her away.

Humanitarian groups appeal to men to accept the wives and sisters who have survived rape and sexual torture.

Hospital outreach workers say husbands and fathers in rural Congo often feel humiliated because they could not protect their families.

Persuading the men

We really need the other half, for men to be equally as enraged as women, said Sarah Mosely, Goma coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, which is trying to ease the taboos against women who survive the attacks. There is a certain level of detachment and maybe a quiet desperation. It's been going on for so long now, most everyone knows someone who has been raped.

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