The Worst Place in the World for Women
This is a situation so appalling that my words fail. So I will let others tell you about it. I'll just add the links.
First, my colleague Olivia Ward, in today's Star:
For women, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is the heart of darkness: a territory where they are sexually attacked, mutilated and killed in ways so vicious that the United Nations calls it unprecedented.
How do I tell you of girls as young as nine raped by gangs of soldiers, of women whose insides were blown apart by rifle blasts and whose bodies now leak uncontrollable streams of urine and feces?
Before I went to the Congo, I’d spent the past 10 years working on V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls. I’d traveled to the rape mines of the world, places like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Haiti, where rape has been used as a tool of war. But nothing I ever experienced felt as ghastly, terrifying and complete as the sexual torture and attempted destruction of the female species here. It is not too strong to call this a femicide, to say that the future of the Congo’s women is in serious jeopardy.
This country has been tortured for more than 120 years, beginning with King Leopold II of Belgium, who “acquired” the Congo and, between 1885 and 1908, exterminated an estimated 10 million people, about half the population. The violent consequences of genocide and colonialism have had a profound impact on the psyche of the Congolese. Despite a 2003 peace agreement and recent elections, armed groups continue to terrorize the eastern half of the country. Overall the war has left nearly 4 million people dead—more than in any other conflict since World War II—and resulted in the rape of hundreds of thousands of women and girls.
When we begin talking, Nadine seems utterly disassociated from her surroundings—far away. “I’m 29,” she begins. “I am from the village of Nindja. Normally there was insecurity in our area. We would hide many nights in the bush. The soldiers found us there. They killed our village chief and his children. We were 50 women. I was with my three children and my older brother; they told him to have sex with me. He refused, so they cut his head and he died.”
Nadine’s body is trembling. It is hard to believe these words are coming out of a woman who is still alive and breathing. She tells me how one of the soldiers forced her to drink his urine and eat his feces, how the soldiers killed 10 of her friends and then murdered her children: her four-year-old and two-year-old boys and her one-year-old girl. “They flung my baby’s body on the ground like she was garbage,” Nadine says. “One after another they raped me. From that my vagina and anus were ripped apart.”
Nadine holds onto my hand as if she were drowning in a tsunami of memory. As devastated as she is, it is clear that she needs to be telling this story, needs me to listen to what she is saying. She closes her eyes and says something I cannot believe I’m hearing. “One of the soldiers cut open a pregnant woman,” she says. “It was a mature baby and they killed it. They cooked it and forced us to eat it.”
Largely as a result of this growing clamor against the war on women in the Congo, and the fact that Eve Ensler herself testified before the Security Council, the United Nations resolution that renewed the mandate for the UN Peacekeeping force in the Congo (MONUC, as it's called) contained some of the strongest language condemning rape and sexual violence ever to appear in a Security Council resolution, and obliged MONUC, in no uncertain terms, to protect the women of the Congo. The resolution was passed at the end of December last year.
In January of this year, scarce one month later, there was an "Act of Engagement"—a so-called peace commitment signed amongst the warring parties. I use "so-called" advisedly because evidence of peace is hard to find. But that's not the point: the point is much more revelatory and much more damning.
The peace commitment is a fairly lengthy document. Unbelievably, from beginning to end, the word "rape" never appears. Unbelievably, from beginning to end, the phrase "sexual violence" never appears. Unbelievably, "women" are mentioned but once, lumped in with children, the elderly and the disabled. It's as if the organizers of the peace conference had never heard of the Security Council resolution.
But it gets worse. The peace document actually grants amnesty—I repeat, amnesty—to those who have participated in the fighting. To be sure, it makes a deliberate legal distinction, stating that war crimes or crimes against humanity will not be excused. But who's kidding whom? This arcane legal dancing on the head of a pin is not likely to weigh heavily on the troops in the field, who have now been given every reason to believe that since the rapes they committed up to now have been officially forgiven and forgotten, they can rape with impunity again.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations has said that violence against women is one of the gravest issues of our time. Well, if that's the case, surely he can understand that speeches aren't enough. And if he truly believes what he says, then let him stake his tenure on it. I believe that the struggle for gender equality is the most important struggle on the planet: Ban Ki-Moon should say to the 192 countries that make up the United Nations: "Either you give me evidence that we're going to prevail in this struggle or you find yourself another Secretary-General."
"Ah," people will say, "Lewis has finally lost it." I don't think so. We're talking about more than 50 percent of the world's population, amongst whom are the most uprooted, disinherited and impoverished of the earth. If you can't stand up for the women of the world, then you shouldn't be Secretary-General.
More information — if you can bear it, and I hope you can — is here.
According to the International Rescue Committee's latest study of mortality in Congo, death rates there remain unchanged since the end of the regional war that tore through Africa's Great Lakes region from 1998 to 2004. By the end of this and every month, 45,000 more Congolese—half of them children—will die from hunger, preventable disease, and other consequences of violence and displacement.
Congolese women and girls in particular bear the vicious brunt of this crisis. Indeed, eastern Congo right now is perhaps the worst place in the world to be a woman or a girl. The sexual violence and rape exists on a scale seen nowhere else in the world as it is part and parcel of the conflict. It mutilates and humiliates. Its nature is brutal and vicious; it defies both description and imagination. Often successful in its intent to destroy and exterminate, rape as a weapon of war is causing the near total destruction of women, their families, and their communities.
Women suffer all over the world. But this is intolerable.
So spread the word. Tell your friends. Write your MP and Prime Minister Stephen Harper and demand that Canada fight for women at the U.N.
Don't let this be swept under the political rug.