Congo: Tortured women struggle for justice
"Thousands of women have been raped, and the people who have done these things want to get off free," says Masika, the co-ordinator of Synergie des Femmes Pour les Victimes de Violences Sexuelles. "They threaten people who try to speak out against them, and they seek revenge on those who do. Then they attack more women."
Masika knows firsthand how difficult it is to find justice in a country that is officially at peace, but still prey to atrocious violence and lawlessness.
Last fall her own daughters were attacked by a local gang who broke into Masika's home: "a warning to stop my work," she says. Under death threats, Masika remained, but the girls were forced to flee the country.
Synergie is an umbrella group of 35 organizations that work on a threadbare budget to aid raped women. It supports those who have the strength to bring their cases to court in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, hundreds of kilometres from the isolated villages where many of the victims are attacked.
"(Even) if a woman can get to Goma and find somewhere to stay, and food for two or three months it takes for a trial, she's in a losing situation from the start," Masika says calmly, refusing to give way to the grief and anger that comes of years of contact with people whose bodies, minds and lives have been destroyed.
Injured women may, in rare cases, win financial damages against their rapists, she says. But they have to pay a state fee, or tax, before they can collect the money – a Catch-22 for destitute village women.
Those who show up in court to testify are at serious risk if the attackers are let off. Men convicted on sexual assault charges may be even more vengeful.
"One woman who went to court had her mouth sliced by the man who raped her when he was freed. It doesn't make other women anxious to report their attacks," Masika said.
Out of more than 7,000 women who have come to Synergie for help, only 220 were willing to press charges, she added.
But even efforts to save the lives of raped women can be deadly.
In one incident in 2006, a Synergie volunteer found a woman hanging from a tree, still alive, after she was raped and a chunk of wood thrust into her vagina. Although the volunteer was able to remove her from the tree, she died.
Then, Masika recorded, "the adviser had to bury her alone and was raped by the four rapists from the same group, over seven hours."
Many of the atrocities are committed by attackers from militias that had fought in the bloody power struggle among DRC's factions and neighbouring countries between 1997 and 2002. Millions of Congolese died, many from disease and starvation. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped.
Now there's a law against sexual violence, but it has had little effect on the ground. Caught in the middle of resurgent factional warfare, women also contend with economic war in which armed groups battle for control over the region's rich mining zones. That, says Masika, has made their plight worse.
In a recent documentary film, called The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, young gang members admit that they routinely rape women and girls as part of combat operations, or to give them a "magical" strength to defeat their enemies.
They are part of a brutal culture of misogyny that seems to have little opposition in a country where "women will never speak if there is a man present."
But, says Masika, with political will and resources, it could end. "If (the authorities) started arresting those people this terrible violence could stop," says Masika.
But that, she admits, will not be soon enough for Congo's tortured women.
By: Olivia Ward
April 17, 2008
Source: Toronto Star
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