Editor's note: This post was written by Natalie Schreffler.
Sexual violence is often used by armed groups as a tool of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and perpetuates the conflict by destabilizing the social fabric of communities. The decades-long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo has had a disproportionate effect on the country’s women. Sexual violence, particularly rape, is committed by government and militia groups and contributes to the instability that has plagued the country for over 20 years. The occurrence of sexual and gender-based violence cannot be understood independent of the greater conflict in Congo, which is fueled largely by competition for natural resources and results in land grabs, illicit minerals trading, and forced displacement. Sexual violence has a devastating effect on entire communities because it instills fear, distrust and shame at multiple levels.
Sexual violence encompasses a range of acts—rape, certain forms of torture, exploitation, humiliation, domestic violence, enslavement, incest, and involuntary prostitution. Although women are the primary targets of sexual violence, there are reported cases in the Congo and other conflict areas involving boys and men as victims. The lack of awareness and the absence of trust in the Congolese justice system, as well as fear of being stigmatized within their communities, often prevents victims from reporting their abuse, which makes data collection extremely difficult and affords perpetrators impunity.
A flourishing and resilient Congolese civil society proves that there is more to Congo than the desensitizing images of war and rampant sexual violence that media often favor. Civil society organizations in the country have programs aimed at reintegrating survivors of the conflict into communities and building sustainable lives for all those affected. One group with exceptional leadership and impact is Action Kivu, founded and led by Congolese community organizer Amani Matabaro and his wife, Amini Bukanda.
Action Kivu partners with local Congolese non-governmental organizations, one of which is Actions pour le bien être de la Femme et de l’Enfant au Kivu (ABFEK), which coordinates the Kivu Sewing Workshop and the Educational Assistance Program. The Sewing Workshop program benefits survivors of rape by affording them a marketable skill. The Education Assistance Program enables war-affected, impoverished children from villages in South Kivu to receive an education. Both programs provide opportunities for people affected by the violence to reintegrate into their communities and build sustainable, independent lifestyles.
In addition to the sewing and education programs, one of Action Kivu’s most innovative programs is the Mumosho Peace Market, which benefits 31,000 people near the border of DRC and Rwanda. Amani originally proposed the idea because he remembered his mother crossing the Ruzizi River into Rwanda and trading palm oil for goats. Prior to the construction of the peace market, women who traveled for commerce or collecting household items like firewood would often get raped by rebels during their travels. The construction of the peace market protects local residents by limiting the distance they have to travel through unstable areas. It also helps residents invest in a business-based lifestyle, which creates sustainable, independent ways of life. This video highlights more of Amani’s work in Congo:
For information about more activists in Congo, visit Raise Hope for Congo’s I Am Congo series.