Interview by Jennifer Timmons, Safe World Field Partners Manager & Editor
"Some of these women and girls were obliged to engage in sex in order to save the lives of their husbands – but afterwards, the latter often decide to kick them out of their homes."
Said to be the deadliest conflict since World war II, the Democratic Republic of Congo's five-year war officially ended in 2003.
However, the violence continues and the wounds will take generations to heal. Abortion is illegal in DR Congo, and there are many children born of conflict rape.
Insecurity continues in the remote, resource-rich provinces near the eastern border. On 29th August 2012, senior United Nations officials spoke out over reports of further massacres of civilians in the eastern DRC.
This was the latest in a series of violent attacks by armed groups over the past few months, systematically targeting civilians in the area, particularly its provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu.
Bahati Valérie and her husband Mugisho established Congolese Female Action for Promoting Rights and Development (COFAPRI) in Bukavu, South Kivu, in November 2009.
COFAPRI works with rape survivors and their children, empowering them through diverse social, educational and economic initiatives. COFAPRI also works with victims of domestic violence and abuse, which has become increasingly prevalent as a result of insecurity and hostility.
Safeworld's Jen Timmons speaks with Bahati about the ongoing aftermath of conflict and rape.
What motivates you to work to help those in crisis in the DRC?
The reasons that push me to work with DRC women victims of war violence and domestic abouse are many. I truly cannot find the words to say exactly how hurt I feel when I see women and girls – particularly in remote villages, suffer from men’s acute and repetitive domestic abuse.
It hurts me to see the critical situation in which they live. Most of the girls who were raped during the different wars the country has been living through are never taken in charge.
Women who were raped are now suffering physically the wounds of rapes – suffering morally and spiritually, and others are repudiated because they were raped got unwanted pregnancies.
Some of these women and girls were obliged to engage in sex in order to save the lives of their husbands – but afterwards, the latter often decide to kick them out of their homes.
It hurts to be forced into sex against one’s will. These rapes have caused women and girls to become infected with HIV/AIDS, and in DRC, such women are not given any extra attention.
Raped women and girls got unwanted pregnancies and delivered fatherless children, many of whom have become today's street children.
The street children are a danger to themselves and a real threat to society, as some of them have become bandits, eternal beggars – and street girls are involved in highly risky sexual activities. They live on the streets and eat from dumps, which exposes them to a series of diseases.
The list is too long and one may write a whole book on this issue. These are some of the reasons why I felt motivated to help these DRC helpless women, with a focus on remote villages, victims of war, and domestic violence.
Massive neglect and gender-discrimination remains horrendous and thus needs to be combated.
Have COFAPRI members witnessed atrocities or are victims themselves? Could you share some personal stories of these victims?
Some of them are direct victims and others have witnessed violence. There are lots of stories they often tell us.
Mawazo Patience, 32 years old, was raped three times in a two-month period:
“They raped me when I was coming from fetching water. We normally get water far from home, some four km. We went to the river during the day with the girls of my neighbours. After we had got water, we went back home immediately as the ‘days were not good’. In the middle of the way home, we met them [soldiers] sitting on both sides of the path. We could not pass in the middle following our culture.
"We kindly asked them if they could give us the way. They responded by telling us to put down the calabashes [round gourds] we were carrying on our heads and go to kiss them. We hesitated, but as I was the oldest, they took hold of me and ‘they did me shame’. My neighbours’ daughters who were younger than me were safe.
“The next time, other rapists met me and raped me at home when I was cooking food for my husband. It was around 4 pm when they entered the house in which I was cooking, and two of them entered where my husband was and wrapped his mouth and his eyes with two different bandages.
"They told me that they did not need food, but that they needed me. My heart beat quickly and I was shivering.
"One of them jumped on me and he did.......(she sighs), when he finished, he told the other in a language I could not hear. He also entered me and blood started to come out. I lost control and I could not know when they left. When my husband came to see me I could not know, he himself took me to the nearest dispensary on his back, at almost 15 km; I was bleeding on his back.
“The third time I was raped, it was at the river when I had gone to the field to cultivate.
After cultivating, I went to bathe in the river; as I was bathing, five people in uniform and arms jumped on me, held me, and made me fall down. Immediately they opened my legs and...... Sorry, I feel shocked, I cannot continue the story.”
These rapes against Mawazo Patience, like so many others, have caused women lots of moral and vaginal wounds. Morally, they have been ridiculed by their oppressors because most of them were raped in the eyes of their children, friends, husbands, or parents.
Nzigire Chantal, 18 years old, was raped in the eyes of her parents and brothers:
“It was night when we went to the bush to hide from the rapists. When we were cooking something to eat, 12 armed men appeared randomly at our place. They asked us if we wanted to live. We could not guess what they meant and we responded “yes”.
“We were two girls; they told us ‘Now take off your clothes and sleep with us’. My sister, who tried to respond to them, was shot on the leg and fell down.
"We could not cry, not even assist her because the rapists told us to keep quiet and that if we made noise they could shoot us all.
"They tied my sister on a tree that had been cut down with the two legs separate. All of them took turns on her – they started to do their evils in the eyes of our parents and brothers, and when they finished, they went. She could not walk – not even speak, but was in a lot of pain and trauma.
“The following morning, we sought some grass as medicine to give to our sister who was shot and we left the place to another hideout. Now I am HIV-positive and I got pregnant from those evil-doers.
"The child has no father and when I look at him, I feel remorse.”
Women and the girls who were raped often become infected with HIV-AIDS. Others become plagued with sexual diseases transmitted by rapists, which rendered their lives hard or even unbearable.
There were men and boys who were obliged, gun to their heads, to rape their own children or relatives.
Bwalikwa Nicolas, 21 years old, was forced to rape his older sister:
“My mother had recently died and our father had been taken to an unknown destiny. They [rapists] met me and my sister in the field harvesting maize when they forced us to do the undoable thing. I always wonder if these people were created by God or by Satan.
"God forgive them; I think they do not know what they told me to do... (he looked at me and shed tears) well, they told me – gun at head, to sleep with my...my... sister.
“They said if I refused they would kill me and rape her themselves and then kill her. I looked at her, she cried. They shouted, ‘If not, ok, do quickly now’.
"My sister told me to do it to save our lives. It was not that easy. They finally took her, made her lie and took off my clothes and forced me to....to sin...”
How do you foresee the future of women in the areas occupied by militia, and who are the groups responsible for the conflict rapes in eastern DR Congo?
These women will suffer forever if the government and the international community do not hunt down these Interahamwe [Hutu paramilitary organization]. The latter do cause a lot of headache to the local population, mostly women and girls who are raped increasingly.
In order to halt the Interahamwe’s evils, both the government and the international community have to work jointly in order to bring peace in the area.
These Interahamwe are among the major groups that rape women in the eastern DRC – they are not the only who rape women and girls in the Eastern DRC; there are also the militia groups May May and the M23 (March 23 Movement), as well as UN peace keepers, the government soldiers – and even civilians.
But what is surprising is that it seems if there is conspiracy against the local population.
The conspiracy against the local population means that women and girls are being raped, men being killed, infrastructure totally damaged and looted, forests and protected animals poached or killed by the militias who live in the parks – all these evils bear negative consequences and they are done in the presence of the government and the UN mission of keeping peace in the DRC. They can't help; they just watch and keep quiet.
The DRC government and the whole world are aware of these evils, but do nothing.
Do you have links with local churches?
Since the work we are involved in requires the contribution and participation of everyone, we have to meet different people, no matter their age, color, status, or origin. In this vein, COFAPRI is in connection with local churches, Catholic, Protestant, and Kimbanguism [a branch of Christianity in the DRC], and they are proud of us.
The problem with the Catholic Church is that it in some instances it is also involved in exploiting women and involving them in sexual abuse.
How is your organisation viewed in the regions in which COFAPRI operates?
The views are different.
For COFAPRI supporters, this is an organisation that God has sent to help and speak for women victims of war and domestic violence.
With the animals we are raising, the youth find some cash that helps them pay fees and pay for some school items, which they could not afford on their own before. Cash from these animals also helps us to assist destitute women who are sick and who delivered babies, but failed to pay hospital fees.
Mothers are proud of us as we open their minds regarding women’s rights and assist them in different ways. We are teaching them how to do small activities for generating income. This also makes their husbands oppose us because as the wife can also financially contribute to her home’s life, the husband who used to be the only money provider sees his power reduced, so he hates us.
Others think that the organization comes to destroy families. This is the view of most violent men who live in the area. They feel their patriarchy and discriminatory rules are in danger.
They fear that if their wives and daughters get more education and support from COFAPRI, their violence will lessen and they will never be feared at home.
Young boys and girls do encourage us mostly.
You mention in your updates how you have included boys in your projects; are there many men within your organisation since Cishugi Lungere Nyangezi joined in October?
Our aim is to have more men and boys in our organization, but unfortunately men are reluctant.
We need them because they perpetrate violence on women, so they must be part of seeking solutions to the violence they cause. Boys, however, have joined us in this noble work we are doing and they are very committed to work with us.
Since Cishugi joined in October 2011, only two men have joined, and they are Bashimbe Joseph and Ilunga Ntumwa. Both of them are married and have children. We have now more than 300 members, among whom only four men and eight boys.
How do you describe the work you do for others?
The work COFAPRI and I personally do for others is fulfilling and it gives us hope for a better future. It is hard and risky, but necessary to do. We love it and we feel proud of it.
It is worth doing in a dangerous area for women and girls, like the Eastern DRC where we are based for the moment.
The Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Security General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms Margot Wallstrom, has called the DRC "The rape capital of the world".
In 2004, about 16,000 women were raped on a single weekend in Bukavu after General Nkunda told his Rwandan-backed RCD forces, "This city is yours for three days."
An estimated 1,152 women are raped daily in DRC – or, about 48 women every hour, according to an American Journal of Public Health study in 2011, the victims being between the ages of 10 and 80 years. Some of the women have been raped in front of their children and husbands, leading to psychological shock and trauma in both the children and the husbands.