By Mugisho Theophile, co-founder of COFAPRI
"You keep quiet because after you will get a slap, or….; they are men."
The situation of the DR Congo war has impacted heavily on families. This is due to the impunity that exists in the DRC. Some men have also been behaving in their homes just like the fighters who committed atrocities. They intimidate, torture, and rape their own wives.
Bahati Valérie, co-founder of COFAPRI, recently spent time in South Kivu in eastern DR Congo, meeting with the women there.
Nzigire M’ Zahinda, a member of COFAPRI, opened up to Bahati:
‘The father of my children often abuses me in his home.
When he wants to make children, he cannot even ask me. I can be happy if he tells me that. He comes and he tells me ‘I want it’ today. I cannot refuse; it is not in our culture. Next time I find myself pregnant and I take it as it is.
Now, look I now have seven children, and there is not a year between two children.’
The women told Bahati they would like to be consulted on the issue of making children.
However, since men are decision makers in their homes, their wives become victims.
The issue of sexuality in a home should be discussed between the wife and the husband and so they can take a common ground. A woman needs to be in agreement, but here it is not the case. The husband comes and jumps on her, even if she is not physically and morally prepared. She feels bad, but she is afraid to oppose her husband. This is how they were educated from an early age.
Raping one’s wife is commonplace in this part of the DRC.
The consequence is that women get unprepared and unwanted pregnancies, and frequently contract Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) including HIV/AIDS. Homes are broken and families become separated.
Since there are no well equipped medical centers and hospitals in the area, these women inevitably face lots of difficulties. This is the reality of village life here. There is nowhere that these women can get checked for HIV and besides, they have no means to pay for examinations even if hospitals existed in their area.
One woman, a member of COFAPRI, (who wishes to remain anonymous) had contracted syphilis and has now left her husband:
‘That man, I loved him with all my heart, but I did not know he was bad.
He had other wives outside but he used to come and jump on me to….. to do it.
One day, I was feeling bad inside me. I went to tell my brother and he took me to Bukavu, to the hospital. I was checked and they told me I had that disease. I was lucky they gave me medicine and now I am fine. Those men should be asking us about that thing before getting it. They jump on us but we never jump on them, never.’
This is a serious issue, as it is domestic rape; these children will be under the supervision of the same parents, both mother and father.
The mother who is raped by her own husband feels ridiculed and not loved, which is disastrous for the whole family.
But since in villages, men are the decision makers, wives suffer in silence.
Cultures here do not allow women to publically discuss sexual issues. A woman who dares so is considered as rebelling against her culture. Thus she receives sanctions and punishments, such as sending her back to her parents, if they are still alive. If they have already died, she is sent back to her brothers who replace the father.
If she takes the case to justice, she will be told that no one knows exactly what happened in their home as there was no witness. Thus, an issue regarding a man and his wife remains a family issue.
COFAPRI women bear witness to this:
"You see these children here, I did not agree to have them.
I hear that other women plan how many they can have, but here if you tell these men like that they ask you where you learned it.
Then you keep quiet because after you will get a slap, or….; they are men.
We have traditions here that give the right to men every time.
We have no word at home or in public. We are just there.
We feed those children together but I feel scorned and remorse when I look at them and see their father; so I remember the context in which I got them."
This is how these women suffer domestic rape in silence in their own homes, by their husbands. These women have to abide to their husbands decisions and recommendations. COFAPRI is trying to educate DRC remote village women about their rights, but we do this as a family education to nonviolence.
It is not easy to root out of village women the culture they have been taught for centuries; it is a hard task.
In the province where COFAPRI currently operates, women and men do not understand the seriousness of the consequences of neglecting medical care regarding HIV/AIDS.
Bahati went out of her way to ensure that this topic was discussed with the women of South Kivu villages.
Very few of the women who were raped in their homes and those who were raped during the war have the courage to say openly what has happened to them.
COFAPRI is working hard to make them understand that speaking out with the truth can save them.
In this area, the minds of people are ingrained with traditional beliefs. Accordingly, they think AIDS does not exist, but rather they believe it is a myth.
The fear of revealing what they have experienced is rooted in social behavior and culture. In this society, women are totally forbidden to address sexual issues in public.
This has caused many of them to die of AIDS without even knowing.
Lack of education, ignorance, and cultural beliefs on the issue make the people reluctant to take medical tests to check whether they are infected or not. Even the government has failed to motivate the women to talk about this issue openly.
Moreover, life is hard in the villages of this region; women are too poor to afford transport to the city where the equipped hospitals are.
Families rarely if ever educate their children about sexuality. For children who go to school, parents rely on teachers for this task, and they forget that the basis of a good education comes from parents at home, and teachers build on what the parents have started. Good and strong education involves both teachers and parents.
Children commonly adopt the belief that they should not be HIV checked.
People in the remote villages, particularly in South Kivu, have a strong belief in sorcery and witchcraft.
Hence they believe that, when people have contracted AIDS, they have been bewitched - rather than acknowledging existence of the diease. This is why they reject going to hospitals for medical checks.
This is the same belief with regard to every disease. So when sick, they first go to see witch doctors.
The belief is that no person can naturally fall sick and that any disease comes from the people who hate us. Or sometimes, we are sick because the ancestors are angry. They want to sanction our bad behavior.
Hence people visit witch doctors, in the belief that they have the power to cure the patient with sorcery.
However, the witch doctor will then ask them to give them a lot of things: cash, cow, goat, hens, etc in order to cure them.
Sometimes, the doctor asks them to do or to bring things he knows are not easy to find because he knows the patient won’t find them, and so he will not be blamed for not healing the patient.
Nanjuci Ange is a widow and grandmother of about 65 years of age. She recently joined COFAPRI and expressed her views to Bahati:
"You don’t live here and you cannot understand what happens here. You come from a rich family and you are young. If you come to live here with us, you will understand.
Sometimes the witch doctors help us, if you have something good to give him. If you don’t have, then you die.
We understand that the scourge of AIDS has no medicine. We call it Sina Dawa, which means 'I have no medicine' - so how can you tell us to go to hospital?
Our grandfathers did not use to fall sick and if they were sick, they were taken somewhere for purification and everything was OK. Other people used to go to doctors [witch doctors] and they got cured.
But you are telling us to go to hospitals, why?"
It is a big challenge to persuade people to go to hospital for treatment.
However, going to see which doctors takes time and money, and at the same time the health of the patient is weakening and death often follows.
When a patient dies, it creates lots of contentions in families because when people go to see the witch doctor, he or she tells them that the person is suffering because a family member or a neighbour has bewitched them. The patient's death creates a brunt among family members, who then target the person who was blamed by the witch doctor.
Often some family members will then decide to kill the person who is held responsible for bewitching their relative.
This sounds nonsense and ignorant but this is what happens in this part of the world. This is lack of education and again COFAPRI is working hard on this issue.
We need to re-educate these people - women, girls, men and boys.
COFAPRI decided to begin family education with the women, with the strong belief that - as mothers, if they have been well educated, they can pass on their education to their children.
This is what shows that the rights of DRC women are always infringed.
DRC women have no word yet the famous ‘Code de Famille’ contains wonderful texts that give rights and protects women and girls. Those texts stipulate that woman and girl need protection in the family and in society but this has never ever been implemented.
This is the main reason why you hear women are raped in the home and during the war. The perpetrators are never taken to justice. The law will only take the course when the leaders who are mostly men, will understand that impunity is the cause of men's violence in the DRC.
When the authorities fail to protect women and girls, who will protect them?
This is one of the root causes of social and war violence on women and their daughters in the DRC. This is why violence against women in the DRC is not to end today.
Rapists know all this; reason why they always rape women and girls and are never prosecuted.
Bahati and Cofapri women discussed different issues that are salient to family, village, and society. Amongst other issues, they talked about how to deal with ruthless discrimination committed towards mothers and their daughters.
In brief, they shared the opinions that men are often provocative of domestic violence and that justice and society are partial as they lean on the side of the men by giving it all to them.
They concluded that women are not generally as violent as men are; therefore, we must settle our home issues nonviolently.
The issue of children born of rape attracted drew much of Bahati's attention. The women discussed the common reluctance of mothers to accept the children they got from rape against their will.
Ever since warfare swallowed up the Eastern provinces of Congo in the late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of women and girls have been victims of sexual violence.
They are either raped in their own homes or raped by fighters in the hideouts of the women and girls.
When warfare is waged, most women seek refuge in forests or in mountains, thinking that those places are safe for them to hide.
Starting with educating the youth is the best way, as they are the future of our societies. If we hope to live in a peaceful society, we have to show the youth that both men and women are human beings who deserve respect and whose rights should not be infringed. Once this is understood by the youth, we can hope to have reduced violence in society. This will help to abolish discriminatory traditions and cultures that hinder women and girls from full development.
The mothers’ needs are different to those of their children. The mothers need a kind of education that can help them to learn the skills needed for income-generating activities like sewing, running small business, rearing animals like goats, pigs, rabbits, cows, knitting, baking, molding bricks, etc.
COFAPRI women believe these activities can help them get cash to pay fees and others things they and their children need. But purchasing these materials related to their education is demanding on resources. And as the number of members increases, so the needs also increase.
These mothers say if their children can get chance to study formally and get qualifications, it will help them.
One mother said that ‘it is better our children learn what we did not study; our days have gone, but these children still have many days ahead. They are the future of our country’.