I've been in the DRC for a year, working with women who have experienced abuse and violence and talking to them about the impact that this has had on their lives. Thanks to numerous news articles and increasing international attention, the horrific nature of sexual violence here in Congo is becoming known in the world. But nothing has really prepared me for the stories that I have heard, and each time I speak with women, I am saddened to find that there is no end to the terrible experiences of rape, torture and mutilation.
"Rape is a weapon of war" has become a catchphrase, but when you talk to survivors of violence, you realize how this weapon operates. Rape doesn't simply destroy women, it destroys families and communities. Attacked, sometimes in front of their families and neighbors, publicly humiliated, and terrorized by physical torture, women bear deep physical as well as emotional scars. Husbands find themselves diminished, unable to protect their wives and children from violence. They suffer shame. And when those who are usually the most protected, children and the elderly, are being victimized, I think that it is a clear indication of how war destroys social values. Such violence leaves a legacy. As CARE's work in post-conflict areas in the DRC shows, rape remains a problem even after war ends, with civilians being the main perpetrators.
The other day, I asked a young girl who fled the most recent fighting, when she would go back home, and she replied "as long as there is war, we won't go back - how can we go back and risk being raped? When we go for water, when we go to the fields, we are afraid." Other women nodded in agreement, and suddenly I understood how effective rape is at terrorizing communities. The mere rumor of an attack will send people running in fear. And the women I saw, who were seeking shelter in an orphanage on the outskirts of Goma, were so angry that nobody could protect them. Often women and girls are afraid to speak out, scared of reprisals by the armed men who attacked them and who sometimes remain nearby, but this group was vocal and insistent, demanding protection and an end to fighting.
CARE is working with women to meet critical needs, not forgetting that responding to sexual violence is a priority from the very outset of an emergency. CARE is supporting health centers so that rape survivors can receive medical care and is mobilizing communities in displacement sites to talk about sexual violence, ensure that people have knowledge about services, and create protection plans to prevent continued violence against women.
About CARE: CARE has been working in the DRC since 2002, providing programs in the areas of health and nutrition, livelihoods, environmental protection, and good governance.
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